WASHINGTON -- Many House Republicans, increasingly concerned that President Bush is out of step with voters on brewing controversies, are distancing themselves from him on several fronts, most notably by racing ahead in efforts to rein in wayward corporations.
While still highly supportive of Bush in general, these Republicans believe he has failed to soothe public anxieties about the economy or to use the bully pulpit to protect their party from charges that it's soft on corporate wrongdoers who have contributed to the stock market's sharp fall. Several showed their anxiety this week by calling on Congress to embrace stiffer penalties for such executives than the president has proposed.
They also are advocating more money for the Securities and Exchange Commission and Treasury Department to police corporations. Elsewhere, many congressional Republicans are pushing for more funding to combat AIDs, fight fires and fund other popular programs, which could complicate the president's campaign to hold down spending.
These Republicans' decision to one-up the president on such topics marks a change for a party that warmly embraced Bush after eight years of Bill Clinton's presidency and backed him on virtually every major issue in his first 18 months in office. With control of the House and Senate riding on November's elections, it also underscores GOP nervousness about the possible consequences of looking hesitant to crack down on unpopular corporate practices.
On corporate reforms, "we will advance further than Bush will at this stage in the game," said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. "He can't control everything... Sometimes we have to lead."
A top political strategist for House Republicans said: "In the final analysis we're no good to Bush if we don't keep the majority, so we've got to look out for ourselves, first and foremost. We have to go home in a week and say we've done something. People have to wake up and realize the political nature of this fight."
Republicans stressed that their strategy is not a repudiation of Bush. Rather, they said, it's a realization of the dangerous political environment around them.
The White House contends Bush has no qualms about this approach. "The president isn't interested in taking credit," said spokesman Ari Fleischer. "He's interested in sharing credit so we can get something done."
Rank-and-file Republicans, especially those with tough reelection races, are leading the way. Wednesday, Republican House leaders, under pressure from those members, vowed to approve new corporate regulations by July 26 that will go well beyond what Bush has recommended.
"The mood of the (Republican) conference is, 'Let's get on with this thing, let's not dilly-dally,"' said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y. "We've got to do everything possible in short order to indicate to the American people we're on top of these issues and we're doing everything possible to restore confidence in the markets."
House GOP leaders want to modify the sweeping corporate accounting regulations the Senate unanimously passed Monday. But some of their members warn of revolt if the work is not completed before the House adjourns for its August recess as early as July 26. Even Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, the Financial Services Committee chairman who has called Senate plan "bad" and "flawed," sounded a conciliatory note Wednesday.
"It is our goal, it is our responsibility, to get this bill to the president by the end of next week, before the House starts our August break, and we're firmly committed to doing so," said Oxley. "In the best of worlds, you know, it would be nice to have a cooling-off period where we could not legislate in an overheated atmosphere. But obviously we're not in that world."
Several lawmakers predicted that if House and Senate negotiators cannot settle their differences in the next few days, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., will yield to Democrats' demands and pass the Senate bill. John Feehery, the speaker's spokesman, said Hastert won't face that scenario.
"I think we'll get an agreement before then," he said.
Either way, Congress appears determined to enact tougher corporate regulations than the White House has proposed. The president has kept his options open by calling for a tough law to be enacted by August and refusing to ask House members to adopt the Senate measure. In a speech on Wall Street last week, Bush chastized corporate scoundrels, but focused on enforcing existing laws rather than creating new ones.
The Senate bill would set up a new independent board to oversee the auditing of companies, a proposal the White House has not endorsed, and create new categories of crimes and stiffer penalties for existing ones.
On Tuesday, House Republicans went a step further, rushing through legislation mandating bigger fines and longer jail sentences for corporate criminals. The penalties are "significantly higher than what the president called for in his Wall Street speech," said Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis..
In the Senate, Republicans on the Appropriations Committee this week joined with Democrats to approve a $750 million budget for the Securities and Exchange Commission. The $290 million increase is nearly $200 million more than what Bush called for last week, after he was criticized for failing to give the SEC enough money to investigate companies and enforce accounting laws.
Several Republicans also want to give the Treasury Department more money than Bush does to go after companies that move offshore to dodge U.S. taxes.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman William Thomas, R-Calif., is pushing legislation to give the Internal Revenue Service new enforcement powers to mount legal challenges to companies that create questionable tax shelters. While the legislation is unpopular among many pro-business Republicans, it provides political cover to vulnerable Republicans seeking refuge from campaign attacks that they are too close to business.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.