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.
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 Street group.
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.