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Bush Visit with Lawmakers Comes as Republicans Worry About Iraq, Polls - 2004-05-21

President Bush made a rare appearance on Capitol Hill Thursday to discuss his agenda with fellow Republicans, who narrowly control both houses of Congress. The visit comes as growing numbers of Republicans are expressing concern about Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq and other issues.

With public opinion polls showing President Bush's approval ratings as low as 42 percent, the lowest of his presidency, Republican lawmakers are worried that a decline in Mr. Bush's support could adversely affect their own political fortunes in November elections.

Most of their worries concern the price the United States is paying in Iraq, in terms of dollars and lives, and the lawmakers are beginning to express their frustration about the administration's handling of the issue.

Some Republicans have criticized the administration for not detailing its plans for the June 30th handover of power to the Iraqi people.

Among them is Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, who made the point to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz at a recent Senate hearing. "People ask me what is going to happen come to July first. I just tell them we are not really sure what is going to happen," he said. "We hope there are some things that are going to happen. I just wonder if we are not being as candid as we should be with the American people about what we are into over there."

Perhaps the issue that has divided Republicans like no other is the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal, with many concerned about what they consider the administration's inadequate response to the matter.

"I am so troubled by the Pentagon's failure to come forward to fully disclose this appalling abuse, to express outrage and concern, and to outline swift, tough corrective actions," said Senator Susan Collins of Maine. "I believe that had you done that it would have mitigated somewhat how this abuse was perceived around the world, particularly in the Muslim communities."

But other Republicans disagree, saying the Pentagon swiftly ordered investigations when the scandal was uncovered earlier this year and that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld condemned the abuse.

These Republicans, including Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, say too much is being made of the scandal. "I am probably not the only one at this table who is more outraged at the outrage than we are by the treatment," he said. "These prisoners, they are not there for traffic violations. If they are in cell block 1A or 1B, these prisoners, they are murderers, terrorists, insurgents, many of them probably have American blood on their hands. Here we are so concerned about the treatment of those individuals."

But it is not only Iraq that has divided Republicans. Some are worried that the country can ill afford Mr. Bush's large tax cuts when U.S. taxpayers are bearing the burden of trying to stabilize Iraq.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, in a Washington speech this week, criticized both political parties for refusing to sacrifice their tax-cutting and spending agendas in wartime.

Those comments from the former Vietnam prisoner of war, and Mr. Bush's rival for the Republican nomination for president in 2000, brought an angry response from House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

"If he wants to see sacrifice, John McCain ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed (Army hospital) in Bethesda. There is the sacrifice in this country. We are trying to make sure they have the ability to fight this war," he said.

With tensions on the rise, President Bush met with congressional Republicans to try to bring them together.

Mr. Bush did not speak to reporters after the meeting, but his spokesman Scott McClellan did. "He is constantly reaching out to members of Congress, and we are working together on our shared agenda," he said.

Lawmakers said the President received a rousing welcome. "People were very enthusiastic, he was interrupted by applause probably dozens of times, and several standing ovations," said Senator George Allen of Virginia.

Lawmakers said Mr. Bush was optimistic about his reelection bid, and offered an optimistic assessment of the economy.

They said the President discussed his plan for turning over sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 30, and assured them the administration is on the right track in Iraq.

Beginning next week, Mr. Bush is to deliver a series of speeches detailing the transition in Iraq.