Separating From Bush

"Presidents come and go," Rep. Jerry Lewis told the House Rules Committee last Wednesday. That was a reason Lewis gave, as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, for opposing President Bush’s proposed line-item veto. But the broader meaning of what he said suggested the congressional Republican majority’s mindset: George W. Bush’s presence is evanescent and not to be equated with the permanence of legislators.

Lewis is no bomb-throwing rookie congressman. He is a 71-year-old 14-termer who has been in public office continuously for 38 years and is known as a dependable Republican regular. It is not in character for Lewis to so casually dismiss the new fiscal initiative by a president under fire for lack of an agenda. The former insurance salesman from Redlands, Calif., is not known for swimming upstream against the Republican tide, and he was not doing so last week.

Lewis’s opposition to the Bush proposal did not make headlines, and neither did similar acts of opposition to the Republican president by Republicans in Congress. As if responding to a silent signal, similar acts of defiance were simultaneously erupting all over Capitol Hill. This constitutes no rebellion and is not even a divorce. Rather, it is a trial separation of congressional Republicans from their president.

More than half a century has passed since an unpopular president has been subjected to such treatment from a Congress controlled by his own party. Harry Truman’s Gallup approval rating reached its low of 23 percent in January 1952 as he began his last year as president. Burdened by the military stalemate in Korea, President Truman appeared uninterested in the wrecking of his program by the congressional Democratic majority. Bush, with his latest Gallup rating at 36 percent as he copes with another unpopular war, seemed similarly detached from the rebuffs handed him last week.

The White House did not react when Lewis called the president’s line-item veto "a very serious error" because it would "change the relationship between the president and the legislative branch." Lewis told me he has not been contacted by the president or his agents. Nor was there a presidential reaction to these further indignities:

— At a townhall meeting Wednesday in Silver Spring, Md., Bush rejected a delay in the May 15 deadline to apply for Medicare prescription drug subsidies because "there’s got to be a fixed time for people to sign up." Two hours later, the Senate voted 76 to 22 for a delay, adopting a proposal by Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.

— On that same Wednesday, the House International Relations Committee overrode Bush’s opposition and voted 37 to 3 to force the president into imposing sanctions on Iran. Even Chairman Henry Hyde, a staunch Bush supporter, changed his mind and ended up voting for this bill.

— To complete the legislative week Thursday, the Senate piled an additional $16 billion on the budget resolution. At the same time, Bush’s efforts to slow the growth of mandatory government spending were defeated.

Although there was no sign of the president lobbying to deflect this carnage, he was at the packed ballroom of the Washington Hilton Thursday night for the House Republican fund-raiser ($2,000 a plate or $5,000 for the reception and a photo with Bush). GOP lawmakers may disdain Bush’s policies, but they respect his ability to raise money for their campaigns.

Even when he was getting battered by Congress, Truman liked to call up his former Senate colleagues for a poker-playing cruise on the presidential yacht. Bush does not care to spend his spare time with members of Congress, and it was extraordinary that Bush traveled to the Capitol Wednesday for National Hungary Day. Typically, the White House legislative affairs office was not consulted, and the president mistakenly talked about the March 15 event commemorating the 1956 anti-Communist uprising rather than the 1848 revolution.

One of the president’s top political operatives is telling the party’s members of Congress that they should support Bush, not out of loyalty but for self-preservation. In 1952, Democrats in Congress, accustomed to more than 20 years in power, thought they could survive by separating themselves from Truman. Instead, Republicans swept the November elections, which might be an object lesson about abandonment of their president.