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More Fuel on the Fire Under the GOP's Feet

As gas prices climb and approval ratings drop, lawmakers grow more worried about their electoral prospects.

April 24, 2006|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Just when it looked like the political climate couldn't get worse for President Bush and the Republican Party, more storms have gathered.

This month's abrupt rise in gas prices is fueling new worries about the party's prospects in the fall elections, which have been roiled by controversy over GOP policies on immigration, the federal budget and Iraq.

So when Congress returns today from a spring recess, Republicans face a political landscape even more challenging than when they left town two weeks ago after failing to pass legislation that would crack down on illegal immigration and curb domestic spending.

Since then, gas prices have shot up to more than $3 a gallon in some places. Demonstrations against GOP immigration proposals have continued across the country. A poll shows Bush's approval ratings at new lows -- and the Republican-led Congress' even lower.

"I don't see panic setting in yet, but there's certainly increasing concern when the president is in the 30s [in approval polls] and we're in the 20s," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.).

Even Republicans who believe the GOP will retain control of Congress are resigned to losing many seats.

"There's not any margin for error here," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). "But I also think things aren't going to get much worse politically."

They may not, if only because Republicans' prospects have already sunk so low. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found anti-incumbent sentiment running stronger than at any time since 1994, when Republicans gained control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

The poll found that 41% of those surveyed thought that this Congress had accomplished less than its recent predecessors -- the most negative evaluation of Congress' record since 1997.

GOP leaders in the House and the Senate hope to counter that complaint by racking up legislative accomplishments in the coming months. But it won't be easy, because many of the problems before them -- such as high gas prices and continuing instability in Iraq -- are largely out of their control. Other issues, such as immigration and the budget, deeply divide the party.

The situation may call for Bush to step in and demand more party unity from Republican lawmakers, who have increasingly kept their distance from the White House as the president's agenda and poll numbers have flagged.

"The president has to be like Moe Howard: At some point in every 'Three Stooges' short, Moe slaps both Curly and Larry and says, 'Get to work,' " said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "There's a window of opportunity to get things done, but the window is getting smaller every day."

In his radio address Saturday, Bush called on Congress to act on his proposals to boost U.S. economic competitiveness, promote alternative energy sources, overhaul immigration policy and support anti-terrorism efforts.

For lawmakers, the rise in gas prices is especially worrisome in an election year because it hits voters' pocketbooks immediately.

"It's no fun at the pump," said Upton, who thought he got a bargain this weekend when he paid $2.84 a gallon. "What really scares me is that these increases came much faster than anyone predicted, and we may go much higher in the summer driving season."

Republicans worry that because their party is dominant in Washington, they will bear the blame for high gas prices.

"The Republicans are in power; Bush and Cheney are identified with the oil business," Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said on "Fox News Sunday." "It's not a hard issue for a Democratic challenger to demagogue."

That's why GOP leaders are determined to strike a take-charge pose, even if there is little they can do to provide short-term relief for motorists.

On Friday, senior GOP congressional aides met with White House advisors to strategize. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) plan to send a letter to Bush today demanding an investigation of possible price gouging. Appearing Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) even suggested that Congress consider a tax on oil companies' profits.

Democrats are trying to pin the blame for price hikes on GOP energy policies that put more emphasis on oil drilling than on conservation.

"We cannot drill our way out of this problem," Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in the Democrats' radio address Saturday.

Demonstrations in California and across the country have continued to keep pressure on Congress to revamp immigration policy. The debate foundered in the Senate just before the recess, amid bitter divisions between the parties and within the GOP.

The House passed a bill in December that would crack down on illegal immigration by tightening border security and by making it a crime to be an illegal immigrant or to offer assistance to one.

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