WASHINGTON — A senior White House official declared Thursday that the Republican strategy in the budget fight "all along" was deliberately to "create congressional vulnerability" on the issue, even if that might weaken GOP incumbents.
Speaking to reporters, the official said that the Administration's strategy on domestic issues has been to convince Americans that Congress was not functioning well and ought to be replaced.
And although that "makes it tough on Republican incumbents," the official said, "this is a long-term battle."
The remarks of the official, who asked that his name not be used, are considered certain to aggravate the already mounting frictions between the White House and congressional Republicans, who split with the President over the tax issue earlier this month and have been increasingly cool to him since.
Partly in response to the President's handling of the budget crisis this past month, recent polls show the stock of Republicans plummeting in races across the nation and voters moving steadily toward Democratic candidates.
And a near-panic has engulfed GOP strategists, several of whom have urged candidates to distance themselves from Bush.
An Associated Press survey this week showed that of 100 Republican candidates who had filmed endorsement advertisements with Bush, only a handful had decided to put the commercials on the air.
On Thursday, the White House retaliated against one of those GOP strategists, Edward J. Rollins, director of the National Republican Campaign Committee, publicly denouncing him and privately calling for his ouster.
In a memo, Rollins had advised GOP candidates that they should "not hesitate to oppose either the President" or his policies.
"Obviously we were not happy with his comments," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. "That is probably the understatement of the decade."
Later in the day, reporters asked the President if he wanted Rollins fired, Bush refused to answer, but appeared to nod "yes."
But the chairman of the campaign committee, Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.), told reporters later that no action would be taken against Rollins, at least for now. "We have an election to win," Vander Jagt said.
Bush's nod came at a televised photo opportunity with congressional Republican leaders that the White House had scheduled to portray an image of Republican unity. "We're coming together," Bush insisted.
The events of the day, however, seemed to send the opposite message, underlining the bitterness that has built up between the White House and congressional Republicans, most of whom have refused to support Bush's budget plans.
Not surprisingly, Republican members of Congress reacted negatively to the senior official's suggestion that their losses might be part of a long-term benefit for the party.
"People have feelings and they have become very bitter about those things when they happen," said a clearly annoyed Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.).
"I don't think the process has worked very well in this instance. It is very difficult to put a positive spin on the manner in which this whole thing has been handled," added another GOP lawmaker, Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.).
But positive spin was the name of the game at the White House as the final chapter of the long budget saga was being played out.
"I've said since I got here" that "Washington is a city where people work awfully hard to look good in failure," said the senior official. He then went on to explain why, in his view, the last several weeks of seeming disarray among Republicans actually have been a success.
Republican candidates will be helped because the President "showed leadership" on the budget, the official insisted. And although Bush was forced to "eat the broccoli" of higher taxes for wealthy Americans, the overall budget package met his main goals, he said.
"There is a strong anti-incumbent mood in the country," the official continued. "We think that is a strong plus for the Republicans."
Bush, for his part, stayed mainly out of sight. The President gave a White House tour to actress Bo Derek, went jogging, appeared briefly with the Republican leaders, but spent most of the day avoiding direct comment on the budget deal.
Bush has avoided for two weeks giving the public any details of what sort of budget he would like to see--ever since he responded to questions about the budget by declaring while jogging "Read my hips" and "Let Congress clear it up."
Over the next 10 days, before the election, the official said, Bush will talk more openly about the budget and about what he favors and what he opposes.
The President plans to make campaign appearances twice today in Southern California, at political fund-raisers in Irvine and Los Angeles, and then will campaign in Hawaii over the weekend for Pat Saiki, a Republican candidate for the Senate.