– For President Bush to pull off a legacy in the final 19 months of his presidency, he needs to shore up support within GOP ranks on Capitol Hill, especially among those who will face voters in 2008.
From immigration and the Iraq war to embryonic stem-cell research and hirings and firings at the Justice Department, Republican lawmakers are increasingly breaking with the president on key votes – and the defections are coming from many who were once his staunchest supporters.
Thirty-eight Senate Republicans voted against moving ahead on immigration reform last week, sidelining Mr. Bush's top domestic priority. Then, on Monday, seven Republicans – five of them up for reelection in 2008 – joined all Senate Democrats in a vote of no confidence in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
But the most searing intraparty rows could come in early September, when Congress plans a close look at progress in the war in Iraq.
"If President Bush had been a more popular president running a more effective war in Iraq, Republicans would still be in the majority, and that's how many of them still look at it," says Jennifer Duffy, senior analyst with the Cook Political Report.
Until Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in the midterm election in November, Bush sustained a level of support from his own party that his father and President Ronald Reagan seldom approached. Senate Republicans have backed Bush on key votes about 85 percent of the time during his presidency, according to a January survey by Congressional Quarterly.
But the Iraq war and, most recently, the president's support for comprehensive immigration reform have eroded Bush's standing with his Republican base and emboldened Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill to go their own way.
"The problem for the president is that the coalition of ... Republicans who are alienated and opposing him shifts from issue to issue, so it requires different responses and palliatives," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
GOP senators who are straying
GOP opposition to the war in Iraq was led by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, who in 2006 ranked as the president's No. 1 supporter on key votes.
On budget issues, GOP moderates including Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, typically break ranks with the president over tax cuts and their effect of raising the federal deficit.
A larger coalition of moderates in the House and Senate – 17 Republicans in the Senate and 37 in the House – broke with the White House and voted in favor of lifting limits on federal funds for embryonic stem-cell research. That bill now faces a presidential veto but is well short of the votes needed for an override in the House and one vote short in the Senate.
On Tuesday, Bush made a rare trip to Capitol Hill to meet over lunch with Senate Republicans, and about half the time was spent discussing the president's support of comprehensive immigration reform, legislation that Senate conservatives strongly oppose. In recent floor debate over amendments to that bill, 20 GOP senators voted to strike the section that allows illegal immigrants to legalize their status. Ten of those senators are up for reelection in 2008.
In the run-up to the lunch meeting, GOP Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia called for an emergency spending request to reassure critics that Washington is serious about border security.
"The message from a majority of Georgians is that they have no trust that the United States government will enforce the laws contained in this new legislation and secure the border first," they wrote.
"Right now, President Bush is systematically turning off his core supporters," says Michael Franc, vice president for governmental affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "That means if you're on Capitol Hill, that dynamic is going to be intensified for Republican senators facing reelection [in 2008] and House members," who face voters every two years.
On an issue such as immigration reform, where support is still strong among business groups and other large constituencies in Washington, Bush can "retain a fair amount of clout and can shape opinion, because it will be reinforced with large institutional forces," he says. "But with the Iraq war, he's speaking directly to the American people. He can't galvanize large interest groups on his behalf."
Last week Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee joined Sen. Ken Salazar (D) of Colorado in cosponsoring legislation that would make the Iraq Study Group's recommendations the basis for future US strategy in Iraq. Three Republicans and three Democrats have signed on as cosponsors, and a companion bipartisan bill is pending in the House.
As a fundraiser, Bush is still the man
Still, the president remains an effective fundraiser for the GOP.
In a recent stop in Louisville, Ky., Bush raised $2.1 million in a joint event for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee – a record amount for a single event in the state.
In the luncheon on Tuesday, Bush told Sen. Jeff Sessions, a lead critic of the immigration reform bill, that he still planned to come to Alabama for a fundraiser for him next week, despite their differences. "I disagree with him on this bill, but he doesn't hold grudges," said Senator Sessions.
"The president continues to be extremely popular on the stump and was critical to Republican candidates ... in fundraising in 2002, 2004, and 2006. His impact cannot be overstated," says Tracey Schmitt, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.