WASHINGTON -- House passage last week of the trade bill should have prompted Republican jubilation. Its approval by a one-vote margin showed the House GOP at its best: adamant adherence to principle and muscular advocacy of the party line. Yet, celebration was muted by major strategic disagreement between the White House and Capitol Hill.
As they twisted arms and cut deals, House Republican leaders were angered by the noises from the other end of Pennsylvania Ave. President Bush's senior aides were suggesting that the bill be set aside and taken up next year. The White House implied the bill could not be passed, and it did not want to risk defeat.
That widened the gap between the Bush team and House Republicans, who abjure defeat and retreat. While the party's congressional wing is loath to publicly criticize a Republican performing splendidly as a war president, it is not happy with Bush's inattention to the domestic agenda. The president's advisers view his 90 percent approval as an untouchable nest egg, but House Republicans consider it working capital to be drawn from. Rep. Rob Portman, the House Republican leader closest to Bush, has gone public in urging the president to increase his engagement in domestic policy.
Last Friday, on the day after the trade bill was passed, I reported on CNN that multiple Republican sources were saying White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card had wanted the bill pulled down to avoid a defeat for the president. That triggered senior Bush aides to protest that I was in error. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer telephoned for the second time this year to correct me (the first time was also for a correction).
Rechecking the situation revealed the GOP's executive and legislative branches on opposite courses. According to House Republicans, chief White House lobbyist Nicholas Calio and his lieutenant for the House, David Hobbs, worried that the president did not have the votes. A member of the House Republican leadership (asking that his name not be used) gave me this account of his conversation with Calio and Hobbs: "They were panicky. They suggested we pull the bill. They thought we were going to be beat. We rejected the advice."
Calio subsequently asked Card to contact Speaker Dennis Hastert, considered by the White House as the least aggressive House Republican leader. According to the White House account, Card cautioned Hastert against engaging in a "kamikaze" effort just to embarrass high-tech West Coast Democrats into voting against trade, but instead really fight to win. Card then reported back to Calio that the speaker wanted to go ahead with the vote. However, word traveled through House Republican circles that Card wanted the bill pulled. House Republican Leader Dick Armey was reported by colleagues to be particularly outraged.
The rationale for caution was that this vital authority for the president to negotiate international trade agreements would be dead for this Congress if it failed last week, as seemed probable. Yet, the White House seemed to be protecting the president instead of assaulting its goal with the same esprit de corps that has marked Bush's conduct of the war in Afghanistan.
That passivity contrasts sharply with aggressive House Republican leaders, who correctly perceived that pulling down the trade bill would be seen worldwide as a humiliating rejection of the president. Anti-globalist activists were icing down the champagne for victory toasts, which would have been celebrated if the vote were avoided.
Victory has a thousand fathers, and George W. Bush's operatives credit him with responsibility for the trade victory. But more responsible were Hastert, Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay. Hastert held firm, not following previous Speaker Newt Gingrich's 1997 example in pulling down a trade bill. DeLay was indomitable in whipping his colleagues, including Republicans who never before had voted for free trade. The result was a record 194 Republicans backing a trade bill, with only 23 voting no.
Those House Republicans, despite a razor-thin majority, have produced wins for Bush on nearly everything he has requested. In stark contrast, the president this week negotiated with himself and came up with a watery economic stimulus program, a capitulation that is so different from his great triumph on trade.