To pass this new entitlement, the largest expansion of the welfare state since the enactment of Medicare in 1965, Republican leaders had to traduce House rules by holding the vote open for three hours while they browbeat members who were balking at the $400 billion cost over 10 years. It is virtually certain that the bill would not have passed if today's cost projection -- at least $724 billion -- had been known. This experience will condition conservatives' responses to policy matters beyond the budget.
The Republican Study Committee, chaired by Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, is an organization of 100 particularly adamant conservatives among House Republicans. Pence, for example, was one of just 12 Republicans who voted against both the prescription drug entitlement, and against No Child Left Behind because of its imposition of federal standards on elementary education, a quintessentially state and local responsibility.
When, a couple of weeks ago, the RSC met in Baltimore to enumerate its priorities, their list included ``maintaining local control of secondary education.'' That may seem an anodyne sentiment; actually it is a shot across the Bush administration's bow. It is code for: Enough centralization -- we oppose the president's plan for extending federal standards to high schools. Thirty-four House Republicans voted against NCLB in 2001. More might oppose the administration's planned extension of its sweep.
The administration is fighting to advance its version of big-government conservatism -- measures such as voluntary personal accounts carved out of Social Security to strengthen conservative values such as self-reliance, and to strengthen conservative factions such as the investor class. But the administration may find itself waging two political wars at once.
One, already raging, is with Democrats. They favor big-government liberalism to strengthen liberal values such as equality in an ethic of common provision under Social Security as it is, and liberal factions such as the welfare state's public employees who administer the common provisions. The other war may be with small-government -- more precisely, limited-government -- conservatives. This may be less a war than an insurgency, but the terminological distinction, in today's context, is not comforting.