Robert Novak

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 late Thursday.

 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 spending.

 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.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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