WASHINGTON — The Senate's rejection Thursday of President Bush's immigration plan was the latest in a series of embarrassments that have exposed Bush's political weakness and shaken his hold on power.
The president slipped out of town for a long weekend in Maine before the Senate delivered the final blow to his immigration bill, but it wasn't the only setback that might put a damper on his seaside getaway with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the space of a single short week, Bush was hit with more Republican defections on Iraq, more bad news from the battlefield, more subpoenas from a hostile Congress, a new assault on his signature education plan and embarrassing disclosures about his vice president.
He also found himself in a fight over executive privilege that begs comparisons to Richard Nixon's legal battles during the Watergate scandal.
"It's the incredible shrinking presidency. He's lost battles in the courts. He's lost battles in Iraq. He's lost battles on Capitol Hill," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University.
"His bank account is empty and there's nowhere to go for more. I think his presidency is essentially over."
Light proposed a headline to sum up the week: "The president loses his legacy."
Bush's plan to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance to come out of the shadows was the twin pillar of his ambitious second-term agenda. His other big idea, revamping Social Security, died two years ago with barely a whimper.
The two biggest victories from his first term, tax cuts and the No Child Left Behind education law, are also at risk. Many of the tax reductions that Bush championed are set to expire, and he's been unable to convince Congress to make them permanent.
The education law is up for renewal, and lawmakers from both parties want to revamp it. Nearly five dozen Republican lawmakers — including Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, Bush's former housing secretary — publicly support efforts to let states ignore some of the law's provisions.
Among those calling for major changes is Eugene Hickok, who helped oversee the law's enforcement in his former job as Bush's deputy secretary of education.
"I had these second thoughts in my mind the whole time," he told The Washington Post in an interview published Tuesday.
Bush loyalists say there's plenty of fight left in the president, and plenty of time for him to use his remaining power. Bush and his advisers have warned Congress that the president will veto spending bills that he considers excessive.
Republican lobbyist Charlie Black said a confrontation over spending next fall could energize Republicans and help Bush win back conservatives who opposed his immigration plan. In the Senate, 37 Republicans — including both senators from Bush's home state of Texas — joined 15 Democrats and one independent in blocking the immigration plan.
"We're going to have huge fights over spending, which my guess is he can win because of the veto power," Black said. "If there's a good fight over spending, they'll be happy."
But with his job-approval rating stuck in the low 30s, Bush might want to avoid other looming fights.
Criticism on Iraq this week from Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, highlighted the growing skepticism in Republican ranks toward Bush's handling of the war, which shows few signs of progress amid sectarian violence. Democrats hope to gain more Republican allies for their efforts to bring the troops home if the current strategy fails to show results by September.
"We don't owe the president our unquestioning agreement," Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a Senate speech Monday.
Bush also faces a potentially draining fight over his efforts to avoid congressional scrutiny. In a move that could provoke a constitutional showdown, he asserted executive privilege Thursday in rebuffing subpoenas for testimony and documents related to the firings of U.S. attorneys.
Democrats escalated their demands for more openness after The Washington Post ran a lengthy four-part series detailing Vice President Dick Cheney's influence on government policy and penchant for secrecy. Executive privilege — a legal bulwark intended to protect presidential confidentiality — became a familiar phrase during the Watergate era as Nixon sought to fend off investigators.
Even if Bush wins the fight on legal grounds, it could take a toll on his already battered public reputation. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, accused the president of "Nixonian stonewalling."
As Air Force One carried Bush away from the steamy capital Thursday, White House spokesman Tony Snow said he wasn't sure whether the president had plans for some afternoon recreation on the cooler Maine shore.
"I suspect he does, but on the other hand, there's a lot of stuff going on today," Snow said. "Business before pleasure."
McClatchy Newspapers 2007