In Own Party, Bush Risks Losing Control
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
WASHINGTON, June 29 — After a string of Republican defections this week — on Iraq, immigration and domestic eavesdropping — President Bush enters the final 18 months of his presidency in danger of losing control over a party that once marched in lockstep with him.
First, two prominent Republican senators broke with the president on Iraq. Then, Mr. Bush’s party abandoned him in droves on the immigration bill, sending the measure to its death in the Senate, despite the president’s fervent lobbying for it.
And when Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to issue subpoenas to the White House for documents related to its domestic eavesdropping program, three Republicans, including a longtime loyalist, Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, joined them, and another three did not take a position.
For a president who once boasted that he had political capital and intended to use it, the back-to-back desertions demonstrated starkly just how little of that capital is left. With the nation turning its attention to who will succeed Mr. Bush — and Republican presidential candidates increasingly distancing themselves from him — even allies say it could become increasingly difficult for the president to assert himself over his party, much less force the Democratic majority in Congress to bend to his will.
“When you are first elected, you have some momentum and you have more ability to persuade,” Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, said in an interview. “In the last months of any administration, getting people to do something simply because the president asks for it is less. That’s certainly true here.”
Even weakened presidents retain tremendous influence; if nothing else, the conservative tenor of many of the Supreme Court’s decisions in the last week is a reminder of the ways in which Mr. Bush’s legacy will continue to shape politics and policy for a long time. As the president demonstrated in clashes with Congress over war spending and stem cell research, he still has enough Republican support to sustain a veto. And administration officials said Mr. Bush had no intention of writing off the next year and a half.
Still, for a president who once had almost absolute control over his own party and a proclivity to employ his power expansively if not audaciously, the last week was a reminder of how much things have changed. Republicans who came to office brimming with optimism just a few short years ago now sound as if they fear a long slog ahead.
One of them, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, who was elected in 2004, wondered whether the collapse of the immigration bill foreshadowed a long final 18 months of the Bush presidency. With the 2008 presidential campaign intensifying, Mr. Thune said achieving legislative accomplishments would almost certainly become increasingly difficult.
“Probably a lot of the heavy lifting will get pushed off. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it probably will,” Mr. Thune said Friday. “I suspect a lot of what’s going to dominate the atmosphere around here in the next several months will be on Iraq.”
An important test of Mr. Bush’s continued hold over his party will come in September, when his troop buildup in Iraq will be re-evaluated on Capitol Hill, and he will almost certainly face Republican pressure to shift course. Senators Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and George V. Voinovich of Ohio argued for a new direction this week. Even Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, has strongly suggested Republicans will demand a change.
“I think that the handwriting is on the wall that we are going in a different direction in the fall,” Mr. McConnell told reporters last month, “and I expect the president to lead it.”
That shakiness is reflected in public opinion polls, where Republican support for Mr. Bush has also dipped noticeably, said Andrew Kohut, executive director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, a nonpartisan research group.
Mr. Kohut said Republican support for Mr. Bush was dwindling across the party spectrum. Among moderate and liberal Republicans, 52 percent currently approve of Mr. Bush’s job performance, down from 63 percent in April, he said. Among conservatives, his job approval stood at 74 percent this month, down from 86 percent in April.
“He’s gone from a president with more support from his party to someone with rather modest support,” Mr. Kohut said, “and how he goes back to where he once was is not clear.”
In a sense, the defeat of the immigration bill could give Mr. Bush a lift by taking off the agenda an issue that has sapped his strength within his base. It is an axiom of politics that a loss is never a victory. But conservatives were so up in arms about the immigration bill, which they regarded as amnesty, that some say it is better for Mr. Bush that it failed.
“The president’s intentions were good, the heart was in the right place, the legislation was bad,” said Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina. “If this had passed, America would have lost all confidence in the Congress and the president. I think this is going to give us a fresh start.”
But as lawmakers look ahead to their own re-election campaigns, political analysts predict more rough times ahead for Mr. Bush. After years of demanding that Republicans work in service of his agenda, the president has “very little good will stored up,” said Calvin C. Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Texas, Mr. Bush’s home state.
With 2008 looking like a tough year for Republicans, Mr. Jillson said lawmakers would look back to their districts, rather than to Washington and the White House, for guidance on how to vote. That was abundantly clear on immigration, when even Mr. Bush’s closest Republican allies — including two Texans, Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison — openly opposed him.
“When John Cornyn defects from the president,” Mr. Jillson said, “you know the president’s mojo is completely gone.”
Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.