Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, normally a steadfast Republican ally of George W. Bush, has conveyed around Capitol Hill what can only be interpreted as a threat. If the White House succeeds in removing transportation money that Bond placed in the budget resolution, he and his friends will vote against -- and presumably defeat -- the measure's final version. So much for Congress standing fast with the president in wartime.

President Bush's current troubles in Congress are generally laid at the door of a few Republican moderates leveraging themselves against tax cuts and other conservative proposals. In fact, Bond shows the problem transcends ideology and influences many issues. This is the syndrome that afflicted Democratic war presidents -- Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson -- in the 20th century.

As a president becomes engrossed in day-to-day war management, lawmakers see a chance to dominate domestic policy. The Bush who parlayed his mid-term election triumph by cracking the whip during last year's lame-duck session of Congress seems a distant memory. As a war leader, he devotes ever less time to taming legislators -- who happily act on their own.

Beyond widely noted Republican defections on tax reduction, Alaska oil drilling and the faith-based initiative, unexpected GOP dissidents are emerging on more mundane issues. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, a dependable party regular, leads the charge against Bush's plans to take money out of the Inland Waterways Trust Fund to operate ports, dams and locks. That would imperil Army Corps of Engineers projects beloved by members of Congress.

In the Senate last Friday, Republican leaders themselves ignored White House pleas to hold the line and agreed on $2.8 billion in aid for airlines. Sen. Trent Lott, the former majority leader, sponsored the package, with approval from Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens and Majority Leader Bill Frist. The administration's concern about a bailout pattern for other distressed industries went unheeded.

Bond's role in multiplying transportation money reflects how a war can weaken a president's domestic authority. Spending on roads is an ancient form of government pork, especially popular with lawmakers challenged for re-election. Bond, who wins by relatively narrow margins in a traditional swing state, is up for a fourth term next year. As a member of both the Appropriations and Public Works committees, he is well placed to guarantee lots of roads for Missouri.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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