Washington Prowler

Republican Jitters

Alarm over disaster spending. Anti-Gonzales paranoia. Plus: Bill Clinton's latest fast one.

By 9.12.05

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REPUBLICAN WARS
With federal costs related to Hurricane Katrina now estimated to be topping out at more than $100 billion, Republicans in both the House and Senate appear to moving against the White House as fast as the rats in New Orleans in the lower Garden District.

Late Friday, everyone from Sens. Mel Martinez and Tom Coburn to GOP members of the House Ways and Means Committee were criticizing the Bush Administration for not offsetting Katrina spending with broader spending cuts across the government.

Martinez went so far as to say that perhaps the White House should pull plans to press for making permanent tax cuts that were in the offing for this legislative session.

The refusal by Capitol Hill Republicans to fall in line behind a White House trying to gain some traction politically on just about any topic -- including the Supreme Court nominations -- is indicative of a troubled majority looking at going home in the coming months to tip off re-election campaigns that now look vastly different from what they appeared to be even two months ago.

"Then we had Iraq, but we also were bringing home big pieces of legislation like transportation and energy, a trade bill and, looking ahead, tax cuts and a Supreme Court nominee that was going to energize our base," says a House Republican strategist. "Now we have Iraq, a seeming failure in responding to Katrina, and infighting in a range of issues. We're not in a good position."

The White House almost certainly will not let Capitol Hill dictate terms on the tax cut issue, particularly if it appears others with influence over the economy -- read, the Fed -- aren't going to radically reshape current policy or positions. "We need to move ahead with the legislative agenda we set forth," says the strategist. "Events like Katrina shouldn't change our approach. We are going to need a more robust economy to offset whatever happens in the South over the next months. Tax cuts could help us there."

HERE COMES THE JUDGE
Meanwhile, White House insiders tacitly approved of current and former aides to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales coming forward to begin a defense of their boss. More than a half dozen former White House Counsel Office staffers have begun pushing back again raging -- sometimes irrational -- opposition to Gonzales as a potential Supreme Court nominee.

In the end, the White House really has only itself to blame for part of the problem, allowing such Washington conservative players as Kay Daly, president of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary, and former Senate Judiciary staffer Manuel Miranda, chairman of the Third Branch Conference, enough credibility in the anti-Gonzales movement to undercut their efforts.

"Those are the folks who have done the Judge the most damage among conservatives," says a Gonzales loyalist, referring to Gonzales by his nickname. "They get on their conference calls and get the blood boiling by talking about how the Judge believes this, and he believes that, and the President is going to do this or that, and they don't know. Yet people inside the White House still talk to these people and create the impression that they are critical to the White House judicial strategy."

Through various sources, the White House and Gonzales loyalists have in the past attempted to make clear that -- at least on paper and in the minds of President Bush's close advisers -- Gonzales was not being considered for a Supreme Court seat. But that statement has always been followed by a remark that goes something like this: "Of course, no one can predict what would happen if the President were to sit down with the Attorney General to discuss court options, and then just decided that the man in front of him was the best choice."

That "wild card" option is what has troubled the likes of Daly and Miranda from Day One, and another reason why the Gonzales nomination rumors continue to hold traction even though Gonzales himself has gone out of his way to avoid the issue.

Another problem may rest in the Department of Justice itself, where some insiders say that after the announcement of Roberts for the O'Connor associate justice seat earlier this summer, some DOJ public affairs staffers were telling outsiders that Gonzales had actually been offered the slot, but had turned it down.

"It wasn't true and a lot of people in this town knew it wasn't true," says a White House staffer. "They may have thought they were doing their boss a favor by spinning things that way, but it had the opposite effect of creating the impression that this was a man who would use the court for his own political purposes."

For now, Gonzales remains off the list of associate justice nominees, with White House insiders saying that there is a growing impression that the President knows who he wants to nominate, but remains open to other possibilities. With the President's seeming political problems building up, conservatives hope he will use this second shot to build up base morale for the 2006 election cycle. Possible nominations such as Edith Jones, J. Michael Luttig, and Michael McConnell, all well-known conservatives, bright legal minds, and with ties to the Bush family judicial tree, are the names conservatives pine for.

ANOTHER FAST ONE
Some White House domestic policy advisers were surprised by what they considered to be highly critical and even political comments made by former President Bill Clinton to reporters, and later black comedian Steve Harvey, who hosted a telethon on the Black Entertainment Television cable channel.

In the latter, Harvey asked Clinton how a Clinton Administration would have responded to the Katrina crisis. Clinton slapped the Bush Administration by saying that his Administration had always believed that faster was better.

Clinton's more aggressive and negative treatment of the Bush Administration was at odds with his behavior during the tsunami crisis, when he avoided almost all political potshots pointed at the man who succeeded him in the White House. But given the political shellacking Democrats have been taking over the past several years, it's not surprising, particularly given that Clinton was lambasted by his own people for appearing to cozy up to Bush.

"He took it from everyone in Washington, New York, from Jesse Jackson and Howard Dean" says a current Clinton aide. "He wasn't asking for advice or necessarily listening to these people, but people were really pissed that he helped the Bush Administration."

The aide said that Clinton wasn't looking for opportunities to distance himself from the Bush family, but he wasn't going to avoid helping Democrats if the opportunity arose.

"He's a political creature, and he see his wife playing this thing very well, and he's going to do what he can to help, particularly with the black community, where he thinks the Republicans have done a better job of reaching out than Democrats -- of course that was before Katrina," says a former Clinton aide now working on Capitol Hill. "When did a Clinton not see a political opportunity and not take advantage of it, regardless of how crass it might be?"

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