Republican split could block Bush budget

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The Independent US

A deepening split between Senate and House Republicans has blocked passage of the Bush administration's 2004/5 budget, and threatens to undermine George W. Bush's re-election prospects at what is already the rockiest moment of his Presidency.

A deepening split between Senate and House Republicans has blocked passage of the Bush administration's 2004/5 budget, and threatens to undermine George W. Bush's re-election prospects at what is already the rockiest moment of his Presidency.

In contrast to the shoulder-to-shoulder stance of Democrats behind their candidate John Kerry, united by the overriding common purpose of defeating Mr Bush in November, the Republican quarrels are sign of how party nerves are fraying as fast as the President's approval ratings are falling.

Just hours after Mr Bush had a rare foray to Capitol Hill to rally his Congressional troops, four Republican Senators made a statement of their own by refusing to back the $2.4 trillion budget plan that the Senate was scheduled to approve on Thursday evening.

Faced with defeat in the closely divided chamber, Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, abruptly pulled the measure, postponing a vote until next month at the earliest.

But even then there is no guarantee that the group will drop its demands for provisions to make sure Congress offsets future tax cuts - either by cutting spending or raising extra revenue. This would effectively scupper Mr Bush's 10 year tax cut programme, billed as his main domestic achievement.

The split underlines the fissure within Republican ranks, between fiscal conservatives alarmed by the soaring federal deficit, and dedicated supply-siders who argue that the tax cuts will stimulate growth that will generates revenue to cover the deficit.

Yesterday the budget hold-up drew fierce criticism of the Senate rebels by Republican leaders in the House of Representatives. But John McCain, the Arizona senator and one of the four, angrily shot back, accusing "some of those in our party" of abandoning the commitment of "real Republicans" to fiscal responsibility.

On Iraq too, Republicans on Capitol Hill are turning on each other, as the House leaders attack their Senate counterparts for continuing to hold hearings on prisoner abuse - which they say merely undermines morale and public support for the war.

Mr Bush however had little new to offer to Congressional Republicans on Thursday, merely repeating his mantra that the US will 'stay the course' and insisting that the June 30 sovereignty handover date is sacrosanct. Privately, some Republican lawmakers complained the President refused to take questions after his peptalk.

In a further sign of how matters are deteriorating on the domestic front, the White House announced yesterday that Mr Bush would make a "major" prime time speech on Iraq on Monday, the first of regular weekly addresses on the issue in the run-up to June 30.

Even beforehand however, the administration is changing its tune. In an apparent bid to prepare public opinion for more bad news from Iraq, senior officials warn that the violence, far from peaking ahead of the hand-over date, is likely to continue long afterwards.

Adding to tensions is the role of Mr McCain, not only as a budget rebel but also as one of the most outspoken members of the Senate Armed Services committee which has led the prison abuse probe.

Mr McCain, one of the most popular politicians in the country, and with genuine national appeal, is a firm friend of Mr Kerry. Despite vehement denials from the Arizona senator, speculation persists that the Democratic challenger would like to have him as his vice-Presidential running mate. Such a "unity ticket" would make the Massachusetts senator well nigh invincible in November, political analysts say.

On Thursday, Mr McCain, a decorated Vietnam war hero like Mr Kerry, created further waves when he attacked the "fat cats" in the Republican leadership unwilling to make sacrifices while the country was waging a critical foreign war.

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