WASHINGTON -- House Republicans, the party's rock the past year, cracked last week. Not only did GOP discipline on campaign finance break down, permitting passage of a campaign finance revision bill that would not even be considered a year ago. In addition, the Republican leadership split on economic stimulus strategy. But through three days of confusion, there was no guidance whatsoever from the White House.
The Enron scandal led enough panicky Republicans to pass the terribly flawed Shays-Meehan bill, with the party leadership looking foolish when Speaker Dennis Hastert declared that the House would become Armageddon. Hastert then forced through the House a third economic stimulus package that makes no sense tactically and is inadequate substantively.
Through it all, George W. Bush said hardly anything. The signal from the White House that the president would sign any campaign finance bill meant no negotiating hand for Republicans, much less a basis for opposition. He has not been much more assertive about economic stimulus, letting his party on Capitol Hill make a mess of it. With an 80 percent-plus public approval rating in waging the war against terrorism, President Bush is less prone to get down in the congressional muck.
The White House ignored the canard that soft money caused the Enron scandal and that the bill passed last Wednesday night would have prevented it. Without presidential backing, House Republicans lost the will to fight an incumbent protection bill that diminishes political parties and enhances the power of organized labor.
What Hastert's colleagues could not understand was his public call for Armageddon when he was advised there was no way to prevent passage once the president's signature was assured. Two or three changes were enacted on the House floor without a serious effort made to change the nature of the bill. This was not the ultimate struggle between good and evil suggested by the speaker.
Actually, Hastert's disagreement with fellow GOP leaders about the economic stimulus was more serious and damaging. Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay wisely determined that no bill acceptable to Republicans could collect 60 (out of 100) senators needed to invoke cloture.
The desired tactic: do nothing. Even the House-passed bill was so lacking in supply-side virtue that it would not help the economy. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was under fire for burying the bill. The added bonus, in the eyes of Armey and DeLay, was getting rid of the stimulus package's revenue loss so that next year's budget would be brought close to balance.
The problem was Rep. Bill Thomas, the strong-willed Californian who heads the House Ways and Means Committee. In his first year as the House's chief tax-writer, Thomas performed heroically in guiding Bush's major tax bill to enactment and in winning House passage of expanded trade negotiating authority. He had pushed two post-Sept. 11 stimulus bills through the House, only to be stalled by Daschle, and now he wanted a third try.
Thomas has never been modest about his own talents, and he felt he could achieve a spectacular success if only he could get Senate and House bills into a conference committee. Just what might happen in the conference committee under Thomas's direction worried many House Republicans.
Thomas's ally, tipping the balance, was the speaker. Hastert argued that the economy still needs a stimulus, overriding Armey and DeLay. At a joint meeting of House and Senate GOP leaders, Senate Leader Trent Lott warned that passage of a third stimulus package by the House would take Daschle off the political hook and might get him 60 votes to pass a Democratic bill and carry it into a Senate-House conference. Hastert shrugged off the advice, and the third stimulus bill was rammed through the House last Thursday amid public inattention.
If it seems peculiar that the Republican baronets are thrashing out their differences oblivious to a Republican in the White House, it is because the president is increasingly aloof from the messy details of legislation. Why should he be involved, if four out of five Americans approve of his performance and private polls show him far more popular than Republicans in Congress?