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White House Ways Alienate Lawmakers

Both Republicans and Democrats are put off by the administration's failure to compromise or communicate on the Iraq funding bill.

October 31, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congress is about to hand President Bush a big victory by approving the money he wants for Iraq, but privately many lawmakers are fuming.

Their ire is caused not so much by events overseas as by the high-handed way they believe the administration has treated the legislative branch at home.

The House approved the Iraq package on a vote of 298 to 121 early today, and the Senate was expected to follow on Monday to send Bush the legislation providing $87.5 billion for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. But beneath the apparent victory for the administration lie deep tensions even among members of Bush's party who have felt shut out and taken for granted.

"I don't think there is any one of us that hasn't been frustrated," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of the most powerful members of Congress, who complained that he had been stood up by a senior administration official the day he was to begin writing the final version of the Iraq funding bill.

"They have treated us like a nuisance and appendage," said Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

This is not the first time the administration has been accused of being too arrogant to consult with Congress, too unwilling to share information -- and too ham-handed at congressional relations to massage Capitol Hill's powerful egos.

But the latest outburst of bitterness has a particularly corrosive edge. Lawmakers are being asked to support Bush's policy amid increased skepticism from their constituents about the administration's actions.

When they get peppered with questions at home, many legislators are left feeling that the administration's closed-door briefings give them little information they could not get from newspapers. Even senior lawmakers say they have a hard time getting access to key decision makers or answers to such basic questions as the timeline for Iraq's reconstruction.

"It is an act of considerable statesmanship for a lot of people in this place to continue to support what the president is trying to do in Iraq, given the smidgen of information we're getting in return," said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

The ill will could come back to haunt Bush when it comes time to seek additional money for Iraq. Some lawmakers warn that he may have a harder time if he does not give more information and attention to the lawmakers who hold the purse strings. And if he does not heed concern about the cost of reconstruction to U.S. taxpayers, some Republicans warn, Bush will risk losing public support.

"The only way we'll lose the peace is to have a political meltdown at home," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) "If you want the American people to keep making sacrifices, you have to show that you have their interests at heart, too."

Tensions between Congress and the White House -- even when the two branches of government are controlled by the same party -- are hardly limited to Bush's presidency. But this administration's personalities and policies have made for a particularly prickly relationship with Congress at times. Bush's first director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., was notoriously blunt in his criticisms of what he saw as Congress' free-spending ways, alienating Republicans and Democrats alike.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's brusque manner leaves some lawmakers feeling disrespected. "He is so disdainful of members of Congress for daring to ask a question," said one Republican senator who asked not to be named. "It is like we are a pesky fly."

Bush has sometimes struck lawmakers as unnecessarily preemptory. In late 2001, he met with appropriations committee leaders and bluntly refused to entertain a bipartisan request to provide more money for homeland security.

And in seeking support for his Iraq proposal, he put off several senators at a White House meeting by slamming the table and refusing to consider a compromise on making some of the aid a loan. As a result, some Republicans left the room hardened in their support for the loan.

One administration official who asked not to be named defended Bush's efforts to keep Congress informed -- especially on Iraq -- by citing the spate of recent meetings and phone calls between high-ranking officials, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and legislators. Bush himself has met even with rank-and-file House members.

"We do the best we can," the official said. "We try as hard as we can to listen and to provide information."

Still, the official expressed frustration at Republicans who praise Bush in general for being a blunt and principled leader -- then protest when he is blunt and uncompromising with them.

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