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Bush Steps In for GOP Unity

Times Staff Writers

President Bush made an unusual trip to Capitol Hill on Thursday and gave Republican lawmakers a pep talk, delivering an encouraging assessment of the future of Iraq and an appeal for party unity.

But just hours later, the GOP-controlled House moved ahead in provoking a fight with the president, approving a defense bill that Bush had threatened to veto.

The House action was just the latest sign of fracturing solidarity in the party that controls the White House and Congress.

Tensions within the Republican Party have been fueled by Bush’s falling approval rating, troubling news from Iraq and the budget deficit, which has made it harder to secure money for lawmakers’ pet projects. With lawmakers heading into election season, Republicans are fighting more often with the White House and snarling more often at one another.

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House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) this week openly challenged the Republican credentials of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and lectured the former Vietnam War prisoner on the meaning of sacrifice during wartime.

The Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee publicly criticized his Senate counterpart for devoting too much time to the Iraq prison abuse scandal.

And on Thursday, a revolt by moderate Senate Republicans forced GOP leaders in that chamber to postpone a vote on their budget at least until next month. The decision came hours after Bush urged lawmakers to pass the budget, which leaders had wanted to approve by April 15.

Republicans are also in conflict over a massive highway bill. House and Senate GOP leaders are preparing for negotiations on a bill that Bush has threatened to veto because it will likely cost more than the White House’s $275-billion spending limit.

There was no sign of the disunity, however, in the closed-door meeting between Bush and congressional Republicans, according to those who attended.

“The president talked about what we’ve accomplished as a result of Republicans sticking together and getting things done,” said Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Some Republican lawmakers and observers stressed that the president’s upbeat message was aimed at easing intraparty discord ahead of a weeklong congressional break that will be filled with campaigning.

“I think he thought it would be a good time to kind of smooth down some feathers. The exchange of pleasantries between the House and Senate Republicans has been getting a little heated,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Bush spent much of his 45-minute session with the lawmakers talking about Iraq, a subject that he is likely to address often as the June 30 date nears for the U.S.-led coalition to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis. On Monday, Bush is expected to speak about plans for the transition in an address at the Army War College.

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Several lawmakers said Bush told Republicans on Thursday that he was determined to stick to the June 30 transfer date. “He talked about ‘time to take the training wheels off,’ ” said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio). “The Iraqi people have been in training, and now it’s time for them to take the bike and go forward.”

Bush also warned lawmakers that violence in Iraq could get worse as June 30 nears.

“This has been a rough couple of months for the president, particularly on the issues of Iraq, and I think he was here to remind folks that we do have a policy and this policy is going to be tough,” said Santorum. “Things, as I think he commented, are very likely to get worse before they get better.”

Also on Thursday, the White House released the transcript of an interview Bush had given Tuesday to an Iraqi newspaper.

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“I want the Iraqi people to hear me on this: I’m told that some in Iraq are very worried that America will lose its will and not help this important country full of good people become a free country,” Bush told the paper, Al Zaman. “The Iraqi people must understand that I will not lose my will.”

Bush also acknowledged a slowdown in reconstruction funding in Iraq “because of the security situation. And that’s why it’s essential that Iraqis themselves stand up and join those who are anxious for life to improve -- to reject the violence of the few people.”

While Republicans who hold majorities in the House and Senate often blame Democrats for blocking their agenda, some of their current quagmires come from within the GOP ranks.

For example, the House voted Thursday to defy a Bush veto threat and include in the defense bill a provision that would delay the closing of more military bases, which are economic engines for many towns.

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Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) said the vote was not meant as a personal affront to the president. “No matter who the president is, particularly in an election year, members are going to look to their own interests first,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) acknowledged that he was having problems with members of his own party, referring to a group of Republicans who had pledged to vote against the $2.4-trillion budget resolution for 2005. Defeat of the budget plan would be an embarrassing setback for the president and congressional leaders.

Republican senators who are holding out include McCain, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. They want any tax cuts or benefit increases that worsen the deficit to be paid for with tax increases or spending cuts. Their votes, combined with those of Democratic senators, could block the plan.

Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said the airing of disputes helped lead to good decisions.

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“This is the way the institution operates. Isn’t it comforting to know that there are differences of opinion and they are publicly aired?” he said.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who has locked horns with Bush over the highway bill, did not attend Bush’s speech but dismissed any intra-party friction as nothing unique.

“He’s got his position. We have our position.That’s the way a three-branch government works,” Young said.

“We support him overwhelmingly in his efforts to lead us in this war against terror and the Iraq war,” he added. “But on domestic issues, sometimes we have a difference of opinion.”

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Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Bush’s visit was a reassertion of his leadership. “The members like him and, by and large, he likes us,” Boehner said. “There’s a bond there that needs maintenance.... It’s like a marriage.”

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Times staff writers Janet Hook and Edwin Chen contributed to this report. Material from Associated Press was also included.


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