Jeff Birnbaum
Jeff Birnbaum - 
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Kai Ryssdal: When the president returns to Washington next week he'll have plenty to do. Congress is back in session. Lawmakers will be voting on everything from budget bills to more funding for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Odds are the president will veto spending bills he thinks are too big. As well as anything that hints of a tax increase. But to succeed, says commentator Jeff Birnbaum, he'll need a little help from his friends.

Jeff Birnbaum: The hostile outlook this fall explains a lot about what's been happening in Washington. Every time you turn around, another Bush loyalist is resigning.

First, there was Karl Rove, his chief political adviser. And then there was Alberto Gonzales, his embattled attorney general. What both men have in common is that they have been considered political liabilities because of controversies surrounding them, Gonzales in particular.

Democrats loved to vilify them, of course, but Bush's fellow Republicans also expressed their own doubts, privately and publicly.

Members of the president's party were getting tired of all the bad publicity surrounding these two Bush loyalists and were feeling less and less eager to defend them, especially as the president's job approval ratings fell. The same, by the way, would have been true of Idaho Senator Larry Craig, but he was convinced to leave within days of his scandal.

In any case, by allowing potential liabilities to fade into the sunset, Bush was making a strategic choice. He was trading political concessions for fiscal cooperation. More than anytime in his presidency, he will need as many Republican backers as he can find on Capitol Hill.

He'll need them to beat the Democrats on Iraq, of course, but he'll need them even more to sustain his many vetoes over spending and tax policy. By cracking down on fiscal excess, Bush hopes to find new purpose -- and a guiding principal -- to jumpstart his fading presidency.

In part, the president is asking Republicans to do what they have always said they wanted to do: keep government small. But that's not always easy when election day is just over the horizon. Federal dollars buy a lot of votes.

So Bush has clearly decided to shore up Republican support -- and make Republican friends -- by dumping their top political headaches. Even though, especially in the case of Gonzales, he had to sacrifice a close personal friend at the same time.

It was a transaction that hurts Bush personally, no doubt, but it could also salvage his presidency -- and reduce the federal budget deficit in the bargain.

Ryssdal: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.