Republicans’ raucous rebellion against the White House on a port management deal has proved to be a crucial juncture in George W. Bush’s presidency, signaling how dramatically his vise-like grip on the GOP has been loosened in his second term.
It also serves to underscore a fundamental political reality: Most Republicans in Congress are up for reelection in 2006, and Bush is not.
For the first time, Bush is facing pointed, emotional opposition across the GOP political spectrum. From senior leaders to backbenchers, congressional Republicans are showing a rare willingness to go public with their criticism of his administration’s decision to allow an Arab company to manage terminals at several large U.S. ports -- a remarkable development for a White House notoriously intolerant of dissent.
A key question is whether the port imbroglio is an episode that will pass without lasting political effect or whether it will permanently damage Bush’s position in the party, especially among the conservative base that sparked the opposition to the deal.
Panicked lawmakers fear that Bush, with no reelection bid facing him, was insensitive to the port decision’s political risks and that Democrats now have an election-year opportunity to portray themselves as tougher in fighting terrorism than the president and his allies.
“His political antennae are totally different right now,” said Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.). House Republicans, he continued, have given Bush this message in private meetings: “You’ve developed a tin ear. You’re not running, and you don’t understand what we are hearing at the grass roots.”
But if Bush alienates conservatives with his stands on port management, immigration and other hot-button issues, some analysts say that in the 2006 midterm elections, he may not be the unalloyed political asset he was in past campaigns.
“I don’t think he will be a liability, but his potency to go in and campaign for a candidate may be significantly eroded,” conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich said.
For now, Bush remains popular among Republican voters. He is still in demand as a fundraiser and campaigner; on Thursday, he attended political events for two Republicans, Rep. Chris Chocola of Indiana and Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio.
“If the members on the ground thought the president was a burden, they wouldn’t be welcoming him to their district, but they are proud to stand with him,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy said.
The GOP reaction to the port decision may also represent the starting gun for the race among Republicans to succeed Bush in 2008. One of the leading critics was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, usually a stalwart ally, who might need to distance himself from Bush to mount a presidential campaign.
One of the few senior Republicans who stood by Bush was Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a staunch critic at times who is trying to strengthen ties to the president’s allies as he prepares for a possible White House race.
“We’re in a period in which all eyes have moved away from Bush,” said Charles O. Jones, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Having a term limitation is an invitation for turning your eyes from what was to what is likely to be in the future.”
Some Republicans contend that the port controversy will prove to be a blip on the political screen, a flare-up that will die down as lawmakers learn more about the issue. The White House formally began that process Thursday by holding an open briefing on the deal for the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“This is just a screw-up,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “I think the base will, after some initial bluster, give him the benefit of the doubt, once they have the facts.”
It is the latest in a series of episodes in which congressional Republicans have been uncharacteristically willing to challenge the White House, eroding the iron-clad party discipline that was a cornerstone of Bush’s first-term accomplishments.
In recent months, members of both parties have criticized Bush’s domestic surveillance program. A House committee has issued a scathing report on the administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. In December, Bush signed a bill containing a measure that he had fought for months, formally banning torture of detainees in U.S. custody anywhere in the world. It has been a marked change in tone from Bush’s first term when, for the most part, the White House and the Republican majority on Capitol Hill operated more like a team than at any time in recent memory.
Congress has been especially deferential to Bush on national security -- and followed his lead on domestic policy as well, even on education and Medicare initiatives that conservatives loathed. Bills have been written near enough to Bush’s liking that he has never cast a veto.
“I do not remember a president having less criticism from Congress than Bush had in his first term,” said Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who now heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
That began to change in 2005, when Congress rebuffed Bush’s initiative to overhaul Social Security, and Republican legislators became more critical about operations in Iraq.
But the outcry over the port deal has been especially remarkable because it has come from a broad swath of the GOP -- and it has challenged Bush on the issue that has been seen as his strong suit: fighting terrorism.
Republicans are concerned it will allow Democrats to use against them the very issue the GOP wielded to great effect in 2002 and 2004, when the party accused Democrats of being insufficiently tough on terrorism. Political fear swept through the ranks of GOP strategists last weekend when they heard Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on television saying Bush was endangering national security by approving the port deal.
“We looked at this thing and said, ‘Oh my God! We are getting outflanked on national security by the left of the left wing!’ ” said a senior House Republican aide, who spoke about the party’s internal conversations on condition of anonymity.
The deal also rankled Republicans because it fueled long-standing complaints that the Bush White House did not consult enough with Congress and took GOP support for granted.
“Isn’t there supposed to be some give and take?” said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.). “There’s a disconnect [at the White House] about the value of Congress -- until they need us for something they want.”
The administration’s handling of the port deal also has compounded GOP concerns that the administration’s policy and political apparatus -- which seemed shaky on such issues as Hurricane Katrina and the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers -- was not in good working order.
“We knew that some in the administration were arrogant, but we assumed they were competent,” Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said. “But to be arrogant and not competent raises real questions.”
By stepping out in opposition to the port deal, Republicans are gambling that they stand to gain more by challenging an unpopular proposal than to lose by criticizing the president.
“The issue will have no negative repercussions” on House elections in 2006, said Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “If anything, it gives members an opportunity to showcase their independence.”
But some Republicans worry that the port deal will take a broader political toll this fall, joining a list of Bush policies that have come under fire by conservatives -- including the growth of spending on Medicare and other programs, and Bush’s immigration proposals that critics say amount to amnesty. The question is, will Republicans be so demoralized that they do not go to the polls on election day?
“I hear every day from people who say, ‘I’m not going to bother to vote this time. What’s the point?’ ” Weyrich, the conservative activist, said. “It’s harder to make the case than it has been.”
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.