February 11, 2006 in Nation/World

GOP retreat takes anxious tone

Richard Simon Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

President Bush returns to the White House after delivering a speech to House Republicans in Cambridge, Md., on Friday.
(Full-size photo)

Preferring Democrats

A new survey shows that by 50 percent to 41 percent the public would favor a Democratic House of Representatives. The poll was conducted Feb. 1-5 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Almost a third of those interviewed – 31 percent – said they viewed November’s vote as a chance to cast a ballot against Bush.

CAMBRIDGE, Md. – “We are in trouble.”

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., made that comment a week ago, discussing his party’s political fortunes. And his remark aptly summarized the attitude here Friday at a gathering of House Republicans.

In years past – especially since President Bush took office – these annual retreats have been celebratory affairs, with Republicans reveling in their power and plotting an aggressive legislative agenda.

Friday’s meeting, however, was marked by anxiety and uncertainty.

The GOP House members, fresh from a leadership battle within their ranks, are divided over how the party should respond to ethics scandals roiling Capitol Hill.

And with Bush having retreated from his prime legislative goal of a year ago – restructuring Social Security – and promoting no programs of similar scope, some Republican lawmakers wonder if they need an improved strategy for this fall’s congressional elections.

For Bush, who spoke to Friday’s assemblage at a riverside resort on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the campaign message was clear. He urged his fellow Republicans to run on a record that includes more tax reductions, more cuts to the federal budget and a tough stance in the war on terror.

“We’ve got a record, and it’s a record of accomplishment,” Bush said in a speech before a closed-door question-and-answer session.

But, as indicated by Ryan’s recent comment, new poll results have raised questions among many Republicans about whether the public will embrace the president’s message.

A survey conducted Feb. 1 through 5 showed that by 50 percent to 41 percent, the public favored a Democratic House. Also, almost a third of those interviewed – 31 percent – said they viewed November’s vote as a chance to cast a ballot against Bush. The poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 to 4 percentage points.

“House Republicans are at some risk of losing their majority,” John J. Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said in an interview Friday. “The Democrats don’t need a huge tide. A few good ripples could do the trick.”

Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, a mid-level House GOP leader, said that to stem Democratic advances Republicans intend to spotlight issues that connect “with the American dinner table.”

These include extending tax cuts enacted during Bush’s first term but due to expire later this decade and tackling energy prices.

Another issue discussed at the retreat – but unlikely to be stressed nationally – was immigration policy. Although most Republicans support tougher border controls, the party is riven over Bush’s insistence that a guest worker program must be central to overhauling immigration law.

The GOP meeting, which wraps up today, convened a week after House Republicans elected Rep. John Boehner of Ohio to replace Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas as their majority leader.

In a sign of a new leeriness toward influence-peddling, lobbyists – welcomed at previous retreats – were barred from the grounds this year.

Several proposals have surfaced in Congress that would tighten the guidelines governing lawmakers’ dealings with lobbyists. House Republicans, however, are split over how far to go, and no consensus was expected to emerge from the retreat.

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