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One year after sweeping to victory, GOP struggling with power

WASHINGTON—What's happened to the Republicans? After running the federal government with unprecedented discipline and unity for five years, they're falling apart.

Their vision of bold changes coming out of last year's election victories hasn't come true. Overhauling Social Security is dead. Extending and expanding tax cuts is stalled. Restructuring the tax code has been put off until next year, with prospects quite dicey. Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling is stalled, if not killed.

Instead of enacting big, bold changes, Republicans are finding it hard simply to run the government. Republicans in the House of Representatives finally passed a plan to curb federal spending early Friday, but still face a fight on it with Senate Republicans. On Thursday the House couldn't muster the votes to pass one of the 13 spending bills needed to keep the government running.

And the war pulls at them.

Senate Republicans passed a resolution last week urging President Bush to spell out an exit strategy from Iraq. They voted to ban inhumane treatment of foreign detainees and to allow those held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, access to federal courts. Some are moving to restrict the administration's police powers under the Patriot Act, while others are joining ranks with Democrats to try to block the Senate from even voting on the act's renewal.

Why the collapse of Republican unity?

Iraq, gas prices and the ineffective initial federal response to Hurricane Katrina turned the country anxious and sour.

Bush has lost his aura of invincibility. Polls put his job-approval rating in the high 30s, and a majority has lost trust in him, which opens the door for Republican lawmakers to disagree with and even flee him.

And Republicans approach the 2006 election year with trouble in the suburbs, where social issues and get-tough immigration talk can appeal to the base but scare off independents.

"They're distracted and in disarray," said R. Michael Alvarez, a political scientist at the California Institute of Technology. "It's not at all clear where this is going to go."

Things looked very different just a year ago.

Bush's re-election and his party's gain of seats in Congress for the second straight election—the first such consolidation of power since Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democrats in 1936—suggested that Republicans were building an enduring majority akin to FDR's, locking in the means to deliver easily on their promises.

Congressional Republicans supported Bush's proposals more than any party had backed its president before in modern times, according to voting studies by Congressional Quarterly. More than the Democrats did for Bill Clinton, more than Republicans did for the elder George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Returning the favor, Bush never vetoed a single bill from Congress.

Their style of governing in lockstep looked more like a European parliamentary system in which one party governs the executive and legislative branches rather than the American system of checks and balances.

But the promise of Election Day is gone.

"The tension they're having is driven by the polling," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Bush now is poison to Republicans. They're trying to put as much distance as they can between themselves and him."

They're strained on both policy and politics:

_ Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said recently that he wouldn't want Bush to campaign with him right now.

_ Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who's locked in a close re-election contest, kept a previous appointment rather than appear with Bush during a visit to his state recently.

_ California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger asked Bush to stay away from his recent campaign for several initiatives, which failed anyway.

_ Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said last week that "the vice president and the president right now are probably not helpful in a lot of marginal House" campaigns.

Davis, who headed Republican political operations for House candidates in the 2000 and 2002 campaigns, said he saw several reasons that his party was struggling.

First, he said, is Iraq.

"The war is a huge overhang. ... It would be great if we could start bringing some troops home next summer."

Second, the party hasn't been able to deliver.

"Our team has to get an agenda together," he said last week. "We've got to show the American people we've passed some legislation that's important to them."

Third, recent Republican losses in Davis' home state, Virginia, illustrate a growing problem with independent voters, particularly in suburbs, where many close House election contests will be waged. Statewide and local candidates who stressed issues such as abortion and immigration lost the suburbs. "Independents are much less into the culture war than the right or the left," Davis said.

It's not just the war or Bush's low standing, though.

As several analysts noted, Republicans aren't delivering on pocketbook issues, whether it's health care, retirement security or taxes. That clouds the political horizon even as the economy performs well.

And criminal indictments and investigations are distracting some of the party's top strategists and enforcers, including White House political guru Karl Rove and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

"There's been an erosion of power at high levels," California Institute of Technology's Alvarez said. `They're not able to focus on maintaining the kind of cohesion that has been their hallmark since 2000. They're not able to put the energy into cracking the whip."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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