Donald Lambro

That posed a problem for Republicans facing tough re-election races in November in the midst of a war and returning veterans this fall. It has also become an issue in the presidential race as well.

Barack Obama slammed John McCain last week for opposing the GI-aid provision, saying, "I cannot understand why ... he believes it is too generous to our veterans."

McCain shot back that he did not need "any lectures" from someone "who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform."

But it is the farm bill that has become the focus of GOP rebellion this year, and former House Republican majority leader Dick Armey of Texas said, "It's going to get worse before it gets better.

"I'm hearing from Republicans now who tell me, 'These guys just don't get it. So why should we turn out for them?'" Armey told me. "I've been hearing the phrase, 'There's not a nickel's difference between any of them.' When Republicans are saying that, it hurts us, not the Democrats.

"There is no question in my mind that the behavior and thinking of the Republicans in Congress now is short run, parochial and political. It's don't rock the boat," he said.

As a result, there are signs of a growing resurgence among libertarian voters this year in the wake of Rep. Ron Paul's presidential bid, and Armey fears they will be more mobilized than ever this time.

"The libertarians will hurt us if congressional Republicans abandon small-government conservatism," he warned.

House Republican leader John Boehner has struggled to change the GOP's spendthrift, big-government image after Democrats toppled his party from power in the 2006 elections. And he has been effective in a number of hard-fought battles.

But the full weight of the latest back-to-back big spending bills, and the GOP 100 who voted for the farm bill, has undermined his efforts and hurt his party.

Many conservatives I've talked to say the GOP would be in a better position today if Bush had wielded his veto pen earlier in his presidency.

"The country would have been better off if Bush had been tougher on spending since day one, but it's better late than never," said Riedl.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.