When a group of Senate GOP leaders assembled before the microphones last Thursday to crow about their defeat of Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) Iraq resolution, they thought they had a shot at finally getting out in front of a winning issue this Congress.
But just as soon as their faces met the bright lights of the cameras, BlackBerrys began to buzz with breaking news e-mails reporting that White House aide Karl Rove was being implicated in the widening U.S. attorney-firing scandal.
“There goes the news cycle,” one Republican staffer thought to himself.
That botched presser illustrated a greater issue facing Senate Republicans these days: Every time they think they have turned a critical public relations corner on Capitol Hill, they find themselves back in the unpleasant position of having to deal with the latest White House snafu.
And, at least privately, many GOP Senators and aides say they’ve hit their boiling point.
On a scale of one to 10, “The level of frustration is at an 11,” offered one Senate Republican aide.
The controversies surrounding the U.S. attorney firings and the FBI’s improper use of national security letters are only the most recent examples in a near-constant stream of troubles for President Bush. In fact, since the November elections that sent Congressional Republicans into the minority, the White House has suffered an uninterrupted stretch of negative headlines on issues from the Iraq troop “surge” to the federal conviction of former administration aide Scooter Libby.
And despite weeks of behind-the-scenes plotting to chart a new message, agenda and strategy to take on the majority Democrats, Republican Senators still find themselves in a defensive crouch because of the White House.
“They have the largest microphone so it’s a good thing when it’s good news, but it makes it awful difficult to hear what we’re doing when it’s bad news,” said a Republican Senate leadership staffer. “That’s where we’ve been lately.”
Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee this cycle, also didn’t try to sugar-coat the struggles Senators have lately competing with all the unfavorable attention surrounding the administration.
“It’s difficult,” Ensign acknowledged. “As you’ve seen, it’s not helpful. But as I’ve said, you can’t do much about things you can’t control.”
Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said Senate Republicans just have to keep pressing ahead with their message and agenda, recognizing that there always will be periods of bad press. And Martinez added that no matter how hard Senate Republicans try, they know their fates are intertwined with those of the White House.
“Over time, if we continue to perform like we did last week, and seek opportunities to have a consistent message, we will breakthrough the momentary clutter,” he said. “I am taking a long-term view. You can’t completely separate yourself [from the White House] because we are all Republicans.”
Already, Republicans seem to be starting to take a different approach with a Bush administration with just two years left in its tenure. Previously loyal foot soldiers, Republican sources say Senators are feeling less of an obligation to defend the White House’s policies and strategies.
Particularly, as the news over the prosecutor firings heated up this week, even the most conservative GOP Senators gave tepid support for embattled U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Very few have offered their unbridled endorsement, many have pressed for the facts to come out and a couple have asked Gonzales to step aside.
“I would call it benign neglect,” one GOP aide said of the Senators’ posture on Gonzales.
Several Republicans said Senators are increasingly irked because, as one leadership aide noted, the negative attention on the White House “distracts attention from the successes we’ve had.”
For instance, before this week’s talk of subpoenas and resignations, Republican Senators were basking in their victory last week to prevent Democrats from winning a simple majority of support on their proposal to withdraw troops from Iraq.
“We are not throwing ourselves on the grenade for them anymore,” said the leadership staffer. “There’s now an attitude of ‘you created this mess, you’ve got to get yourself out of it.’”
One case in point, Republicans said, was Tuesday’s overwhelming Senate vote to limit the attorney general’s authority to appoint interim U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. The 94-2 vote underscored GOP dissatisfaction not only with the issue itself, but the way in which the White House has tried to manage what’s become a public relations nightmare, several GOP aides said.
“That vote was proof positive that ‘we’re carrying no more of your water,’” said yet another Senate Republican aide, adding: “We just hope they leave without doing any more damage.”
Publicly, Republican Senators are more forgiving, saying they recognize that as president, Bush invites greater attention and scrutiny from the public and press than they do.
And while Senators may be agitated, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who helps coordinate the party message, said there’s a recognition among his colleagues that “it’s all give-and-take up here.”
“The good thing about this is tomorrow is a new day and hopefully there will be a new issue,” Cornyn said. “We just have to focus on our message and continue to talk about our agenda and our issues.”
But no matter how hard they try to pivot attention back on their issues such as last week’s floor victory on Iraq, Republicans say they have trouble competing.
“It’s inevitable,” said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). “There’s nothing we can do but focus on the issues people care about.”
Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.), chairman of the Republican Steering Committee, agreed that “it is challenging” for Senators to go up against the U.S. attorney firings issue while trying to go on the offensive on some of their top issues such as spending and the budget.
“It’s frustrating to get off our message,” DeMint said. “We need to really stay focused.”