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Bush tries to assuage antsy Republicans

But moderates still reject budget

WASHINGTON _ President Bush made a rare journey to Capitol Hill yesterday to give a pep talk to House and Senate Republicans to smooth over growing dissatisfaction with the Iraq war and the expanding federal deficit, but he was unable to persuade moderates in his party to end their opposition to his budget plans, delaying a vote on its passage.

The president's need to maintain support among increasingly divergent factions of his political base is especially vital this election year, with Bush relying on strong backing from his fellow Republicans to offset plummeting support among Democrats and Independents.

Bush emphasized his determination that Iraqis regain sovereignty of their nation by June 30, hoping to assuage lawmakers who are harboring doubts about the mission amid continuing violence and the outrage over the abuse of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison. Bush cautioned that violence in Iraq could intensify after the US handover of power.

Many of those who attended the meeting said the president's remarks were well received. But the visit did not end the Republican squabbling.

Indeed, some moderate Republicans in the Senate attended the meeting yesterday, but then moved to scale back tax cuts included in the compromise $2.4 trillion budget for 2005 that GOP leaders want to pass before their spring break. At least four moderate GOP senators -- including Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins, both of Maine -- said Bush's budget proposals would allow the deficit to grow to dangerous levels.

''We have to pay for our tax cuts," said Senator Lincoln Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island.

On Wednesday, House Republicans passed the budget by three votes, but some moderate Republicans in the closely divided Senate said they would vote against it, killing hopes that it could be passed this month and delaying until at least next month a vote on its passage.

The delay is a setback for the White House, which had issued a statement from Bush after his meeting at the Capitol urging the Senate to follow the House's lead and pass the budget.

Internal bickering has long been a staple of Democratic Party politics, but this year Democrats are united in their determination to defeat Bush. Meanwhile, the fissures developing among Republicans could threaten his reelection.

Recent polls show that between 10 and 20 percent of Republicans do not approve of the job Bush is doing as president, still a strong endorsement from his own party, but potentially not enough to offset Democratic opposition and low approval ratings among independents.

More than a half-dozen polls taken this month show overall support for Bush to be at or near the lowest levels of his presidency. Most responding to those polls also disapprove of his handling of Iraq, which had been among his strong suits, but is now a target for intense criticism from Democrats.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, took on Bush on that topic yesterday, saying: ''I think the time has come to speak very frankly about the lack of leadership in the White House, the lack of judgment. People say that the president has great resolve, and they admire that. But resolve must be accompanied by judgment and with a plan to succeed. In the case of Iraq, it was not."

Pelosi also said Bush's actions on Iraq ''demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment, and experience in making the decisions that would have been necessary to truly accomplish the mission without the deaths to our troops and the cost to our taxpayers."

Pelosi's comments drew a fast response from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. ''Mrs. Pelosi has the right to disagree with President Bush, and it is clear that she has a different vision from the president," a statement from Hastert read. ''But her comments questioning the president's competence cross the line. Mrs. Pelosi's comments were meant to inspire her political base. But who else do they inspire? That is the question she should ask herself."

White House officials did not describe Bush's appearance at the Capitol as an effort to put out intraparty brushfires, but the public spat on Wednesday between Hastert and Senator John S. McCain, a Republican from Arizona, exposed just how intensely disputes within the party are being waged.

McCain, who often spars with the White House, criticized Republicans and Democrats who support tax cuts during a time of war, prompting a sharp rebuke from Hastert, a staunch supporter of the administration.

Bush, who has not vetoed any legislation as president, has seen the budget deficit rise to $500 billion after inheriting a surplus.

''What tends to happen in times of crisis is there is a 'go along to get along' feeling, and spending goes up," said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, a group that advocates smaller government.

Keene said conservatives are unwilling to back Bush's likely opponent this fall, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, and are pleased that the administration, which has threatened to veto a transportation bill if it calls for too much spending, is taking fiscal restraint more seriously in recent months.

But Keene acknowledged that some conservatives remain displeased.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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