WASHINGTON -- Last Wednesday, leaders of conservative and
moderate factions in the House Republican conference sat down to
discuss a joint call for new leadership elections. No agreement
was reached, and the events of the next 24 hours destroyed the budding
coalition while exposing the ineffectiveness of current leaders.
Abandonment of oil drilling in the Arctic failed to appease the
moderate bloc, and the leaders pulled down the budget-cutting bill
Demands for new leaders are aimed at Rep. Roy Blunt, the elected
House majority whip and acting majority leader. But critics who
want Blunt replaced by Rep. John Boehner concede they have no solution
for a malady that afflicts the Republican Party in the Senate as
well as in the House. At the very hour that a handful of House Republican
moderates torpedoed the budget bill, one Senate moderate stalled
tax legislation in the Senate Finance Committee.
Actually, the Republican Party never has been so united ideologically,
but the tiny moderate faction can provide the balance of power in
the House and to a lesser extent the Senate. To frustrated conservatives,
moderates look like the tail wagging the Republican dog. The events
last Thursday suggest the folly of seeking ephemeral legislative
victories by sacrificing principle.
Conservative unhappiness with House leaders peaked early last week
with the revelation of the attempted buy-off of moderate Republican
votes by removing the Senate-passed provision for oil exploration
in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Rep. Joe Barton of
Texas, Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, was heard saying
he now would vote against the budget bill -- a course probably followed
by other Western and Southwestern Republicans.
Earlier, the moderates had threatened to vote against the budget
unless President Bush restored Davis-Bacon prevailing union wage
rates for Gulf reconstruction. But Bush's retreat on this issue
and the removal of ANWR did not satisfy the moderates. They opposed
the budget bill's $50 billion in cuts out of $2.5 trillion in annual
Blunt pulled down the bill Thursday afternoon as members raced for
the airports to get started on the Veterans Day weekend. At about
the same hour, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine (who last year had the
highest liberal record of any Republican senator) withheld her necessary
support on even a year's extension of capital gains and dividend
cuts -- the heart of Bush's successful economic recovery program.
The House revolt of the moderates killed the quest for new leadership
by a moderate-conservative coalition. Rep. Mike Pence, chairman
of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told this column
late Thursday that he was not interested in new leadership elections.
But he was deeply upset by the moderates. "It does not bode well
for the future of this Republican majority," Pence told me. Other
conservatives were reported as calling on the Club for Growth to
challenge in Republican primaries every member of the moderate Main
Conservatives to whom I talked were outraged less by the moderates
than coddling that did not begin with Speaker Dennis Hastert but
was started in 1995 by Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican control
of the House. "I hate it that the leaders kill ANWR because of Sherry
Boehlert [New York] and Chris Shays [Connecticut]," said a California
congressman who asked that his name not be used.
Last week's breakdown in the House promoted wistful Republican longing
for the strong arm of suspended Majority Leader Tom DeLay. But nobody
has a quick solution for what to do when Congress reconvenes today.
One conservative suggestion that Republican rebels might be brought
around by adverse comments on the weekend talk shows and in newspapers
did not reckon on lionizing of the moderates.
The Republican Party does not know how to save the budget bill that
it cannot afford to lose. A weakened President Bush, off to Asia
Tuesday, will not be around for one-on-one lobbying. A way out is
to pass a budget with neither ANWR nor budget cuts and approve a
tax bill without investment tax cuts. The Grand Old Party's mission,
apart from a vigorous foreign policy, then would be legislation
fitting the special needs of its top business contributors -- a
role the moderates could accept.