Tom Delay had a bone to pick with the President when he approached him on the Truman balcony at a White House get-together last week. DeLay didn't like press secretary Ari Fleischer's pressuring House Republicans to pass a tax credit for low-income families with children. "Last time I checked," DeLay had snapped to reporters, "he didn't have a vote." DeLay and conservatives resented being forced to accede to what they felt was slapdash legislation--and being made to look miserly for it. Bush didn't back down, saying he wanted a bill passed quickly. The flinty Congressman would not let the matter drop and moments later brought it up with some G.O.P. leaders present. "We didn't appreciate it," he said of the White House pressure. "Well," Bush said with a smile, "we were trying to nudge you along."
DeLay knows about nudges. He's famous for giving them--and the odd knee to the groin--but he doesn't like being on the receiving end. Increasingly, the Texas Republican feels that he and his conservative colleagues have been isolated by the Administration, despite their repeated success in passing the President's agenda. "They take the House for granted," a G.O.P. leadership aide said."This was Tom saying, 'Hey, take notice of me.'"
A little distance from Bush is usually not a bad thing for DeLay. An unflinching conservative advocate, he wins hurrahs from the faithful each time he sticks to his guns in public. And he translates that into legislative power. But sometimes the White House goes too far with its tendency to use him as a foil to show voters that the President is a compassionate conservative. During the 2000 campaign, Bush opposed a DeLay-backed plan on tax credits for the poor to demonstrate that he was a "new kind of Republican," distinct from the G.O.P.'s tightfisted, meanspirited wing. At the time, Bush accused DeLay & Co. of trying to "balance their budget on the backs of the poor." According to a DeLay confidant, Bush later apologized and said he would not use DeLay as a right-wing bogeyman again.
Yet the two men continue to air differences in public. For DeLay, a former exterminator from Houston, Bush is a Republican born of privilege and more representative of his party's country-club wing, despite his Midland, Texas, roots and frequent trips to his Crawford ranch. Explaining himself, DeLay simply says, "I'm just a bug man." --By John F. Dickerson and Michael Weisskopf