Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill didn't have to resign over the Bush administration's decision on steel tariffs: he won as many points as he lost in that fight. But insiders are wondering if keeping O'Neill around will be worth the trouble. White House staffers complain that O'Neill is a wildcard and not a team player.
Take, for example, his remarks last week in Kuwait, where he told reporters that "It seems quite clear now that our economy maybe never suffered a recession." This while his boss, President Bush, was on the stump in the Midwest touting the administration's seeming victory over the recession.
What's more, O'Neill is said to have gotten into an ugly shouting match with House Speaker Dennis Hastert and his advisers during a Capitol Hill meeting in which O'Neill was lobbying Hastert on raising the federal debt limit.
According to one knowledgeable House leadership source, who spoke with Hastert after the meeting, O'Neill grew increasingly agitated when the Hastert seemed hesitant about raising the limit. Hastert's concerns are the result of infighting inside the House leadership. He would be willing to raise the debt limit as long as the legislation for that increase stood alone, with no add-ons. But House whip Tom DeLay wants to attach several conservative-friendly amendments to any debt limit increase. "The only way the House can pass it is if there are some tax cut measures included to make the debt extension more palatable to conservatives," says the House leadership source.
O'Neill seemed not to care about Hastert's situation, and the conversation between the two men grew angry, to the point where Hastert is said to have asked O'Neill and his advisers to leave. Cooler heads prevailed, and the meeting ended peacefully. But the White House received a call from Hastert about the meeting immediately following its conclusion.
"Hastert was [angry]. Really mad. He wanted O'Neill's head. I think everyone was taken aback at how angry he was," says the Hill source. "Meetings like this happen, not a lot, but enough that it's usually not a huge deal. This one was. O'Neill just rubbed him the wrong way."
"O'Neill is going to come back to haunt us," the Hill sources adds. "We know it, and there is nothing we can do about it now. It's his behavior that has us worried, though. If he's going to act this erratic, it only adds to the concerns the White House has about his ability to work with us down the road. The president may have to be proactive about this."
A BEAUTIFUL MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING TO DIS
Given that the last guy (a TV producer) who snubbed Russell Crowe ended up getting pushed up against a wall, Bill Clinton is asking for trouble. When the ex-prez was Down Under recently, he set up a dinner with Crowe and even invited Crowe's parents to come along. But then Clinton pulled a no-show, an Australian magazine editor based in Sydney tells the Prowler.
"The cancellation came with no explanation," the editor says. "That's the kind of behavior that can make Russell Crowe mad."
PARADING THE GREEN
President Bush doesn't party anymore, but that hardly means he doesn't know how to celebrate. According to a White House scheduler, the president wants to attend St. Patrick's parades in New York City and Chicago in the coming days and perhaps an event closer to home.
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