‘Spring Cleaning’ at the White House?

With spring, comes cleaning. But Washington’s political junkies are still wondering if new chief of staff Josh Bolten will take his broom through the White House.

Bolten is certainly reviewing the administration’s operations before he formally begins his job next week. But he’s also spending time on another project. Bolten, like President George W. Bush, is deeply engaged in a charm offensive with the people who have caused the administration so much trouble over the last year: members of Congress. On Monday, Bolten invited House Majority Leader John Boehner to the White House, where they lunched on chicken quesadillas and talked about how Congress and the White House can improve their working relationship. According to Boehner, Bolten quizzed him about what kind of job he thinks the White House is doing, asking, “Where are the strong points? Where are the weak points?” “He was doing what a capable manager would do, and that is to assess where he thinks the White House operation is and how it can be improved,” Boehner said Tuesday. The lawmaker declined to elaborate on what he told Bolten during their 90-minute sit-down, but when asked if he expected additional staff changes at the White House, Boehner responded, “I don’t know.” According to the White House, Bolten has made similar inquiries to more than 30 members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, since Bush named him as Andy Card’s replacement a little over a week ago . His phone calls have been aimed not just at congressional leaders, but also GOP critics, including Rep. Mike Pence, a fiscal conservative who has frequently clashed with the White House on spending, and Sen. Trent Lott, who has scolded Bush for not having a better relationship with Congress. Lott told reporters his first piece of advice to Bolten was: “When you get a call from a senator, it’s nice when you take the call and return it. Don’t kick it down the hall to Congressional Affairs.” For many Republicans on the Hill, Bush’s congressional relations have been a sore point. While Card kept in contact with House and Senate leadership, he was criticized by some lawmakers for being slow to return phone calls and not being as accessible as they thought he should have been as chief of staff. One GOP leadership aide told NEWSWEEK that Card was viewed as being too intensely focused on the war, at the expense of other policies on the Bush agenda. Bolten, meanwhile, has been praised for his close contacts with Congress. In February, Bolten traveled with Bush to the annual House GOP leadership retreat in Maryland, where he stayed behind to meet and brief lawmakers on the economy. Still, many Republicans, including Lott, have made clear that other staff changes are needed. The most intense focus remains on the White House’s legislative-affairs office. Candida Wolff, the president’s chief congressional liaison, is liked by many Hill GOPers but has been viewed as ineffective because she lacks the stature and clout enjoyed by other senior Bush aides, like Karl Rove. Lott and other lawmakers have pressed Bolten to bring in a more seasoned political aide to deal with congressional relations. Additionally, one senior House GOP aide tells NEWSWEEK that at least two GOP lawmakers have pressed Bolten to “overhaul” the White House communications team, citing botched messages on the economy and the war. The complaints follow on the heels of last fall’s congressional retreat in which House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist complained to Card and White House counselor Dan Bartlett about the administration’s communications efforts. “They need some fresh ideas,” said the aide, who declined to be named so as not to anger the White House. Bolten’s outreach to Congress mirrors the president’s own efforts. In the last two months, Bush has staged meetings with dozens of members—some bipartisan, but mostly Republican sessions—in the family quarters of the White House. The subjects have ranged from his competitiveness initiative to immigration to local district concerns. But the broadest discussions have centered on Iraq. Bush met one group last week that included Sen. Russ Feingold just a few days before the Wisconsin Democrat quizzed witnesses in the Judiciary Committee about his proposal to censure the president. Bush’s aides say members of Congress have offered the full range of advice on Iraq, from redeploying troops out of harm’s way to adding more troops to the front lines. Whatever advice is given or changes Bolten is contemplating to the White House, there’s little expectation that the president will change the way he does business. That’s because Bush wants a chief of staff who operates totally unlike John Sununu, who ran the senior Bush's dysfunctional White House. “I don’t think the fundamental management style will change,” said one senior Bush aide, who declined to be named when discussing internal changes. “It will be a fairly flat hierarchy. That is something that Andy was pretty egoless about. It’s the anti-Sununu. Sununu was almost a prime minister, as the president calls it, almost a gatekeeper. That’s why the president set up his office as governor and president where the top level of staff have the ability to walk in.” However, the definition of top-level staff doesn’t include everyone who thinks they are senior. Under Card, senior directors on the National Security Council were not allowed access to the West Wing unless they had an appointment—a policy that some took as a downgrading of their position. Still, the number of top-level staff with access to the Oval extends to the 18 aides who carry the title “assistant to the president.” Others inside Bush’s inner circle believe the lack of big changes—or big outsiders—is a sign of the president’s strength. “I know there’s a lot of talk about someone from the outside,” former Commerce secretary Don Evans told NEWSWEEK. “But to me it speaks volumes about the president. Any leader of any organization or any institution in America wants to be able to basically promote from within. You work very hard in any organization to have a seamless succession.” Bolten’s challenge is to freshen up the White House—and its relationship with Congress—without tearing it apart at the seams.