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White House facing revolt within GOP

IN JUST A FEW weeks the political tide has turned dramatically against President Bush. His popularity ratings have dipped below 50 percent. His policies are under fire on the Iraq war, the economy, and the budget mess. Moreover, Bush is facing an escalating revolt from within his own party. A little-noted indicator is that Republican senators and House members are no longer willing to take unpopular votes merely because the White House demands them. Lately the administration has lost several key votes that were billed as Republican tests of loyalty: * Moderate GOP legislators defected on administration plans to privatize air traffic controllers and make special security training for flight attendants optional. This week, embarrassed Republican floor leaders in the House will send the bill back to committee rather than lose a floor vote.

* Republican House leaders had to pull one administration bill allowing "comp time" as an alternative to overtime pay. A majority of senators blocked a second scheme to disqualify more workers from receiving overtime pay.

* At least 90 Republican congressmen of all stripes are resisting White House efforts, on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry, to block cheaper prescription drug imports from Canada. In order to win narrow House passage of the administration's Medicare amendments, the GOP leadership agreed to a separate vote on drug importation, which carried by a wide margin. Now the administration is trying to reverse this loss via the back door by disparaging the safety of drug imports.

* Conservative House Republicans joined with liberal Democrats in narrowing assaults on civil liberty and due process in the so-called Patriot Act, which was rushed through Congress after the attacks of 9/11. In the appropriations bill for the Justice Department, the Republican House added language opposed by the administration limiting searches of libraries and warrantless snooping of people's homes.

* A mass bipartisan revolt in both the House and Senate will overturn the administration's proposed FCC regulations that would have made it easier for media conglomerates to merge. The House and Senate have passed slightly different versions of resolutions of disapproval.

Not long ago the administration could have reversed these losses with threats of vetoes. No more. Republicans in Congress are as upset as Democrats about revelations of the use of intelligence on Iraq for political purposes. They are joining Democrats in giving serious scrutiny to the $87 billion the administration wants to bail out Bush's Iraq policy. There is bipartisan embarrassment at the Iraq contractor profiteering. Bush is even having a harder time enforcing party loyalty on behalf of far-right appointees to the federal bench.

Why this shift? Suddenly Bush's own reelection is seen as at risk, and Republican legislators are more worried about saving their own seats. They have walked the plank for Bush one time too many.

Until recently Republican control of Congress in the 2004 election was seen as a sure thing. Now, however, it looks as though both chambers are up for grabs, especially if Bush's own reelection is in jeopardy. Congressmen and senators are keen detectors of shifts in voter sentiment since their own survival depends on it. Bush's reversal of fortune is occurring on multiple fronts.

First, public opinion is turning dramatically against Bush's war. When legislators return to their districts, they hear from constituents unhappy about the deaths, the unanticipated financial cost, and the extended disruption of the lives of reservists.

Second, there is distress about the economy. The jobs hemorrhage is continuing, and more people are losing health coverage. For all the talk about new prescription drug benefits for seniors, that legislation is blocked and is minimal in any case. It is stalled, in part because some Republicans and most Democrats are unwilling to privatize Medicare as the price of a new drug benefit.

Third, many Republican legislators are appalled at the cost of the three immense tax cuts that the White House demanded. The nation is on the edge of a real fiscal crisis. It's one thing to bestow tax breaks on business allies; another to create so much red ink that interest rates head skyward and the dollar tanks.

Finally, the press has stopped giving Bush a free ride, and 9/11 no longer serves as a mantra to turn aside all challenges.

When Bush's popularity ratings were in the stratosphere, Republican legislators contentedly basked in his warmth. The White House political operation could threaten to discipline Republican legislators who defected, refusing favors and even threatening challenges in primaries. Those days are simply gone. Nothing succeeds like success. And nothing fails like failure.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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