Another GOP retreat

Robert Novak
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Posted: Aug 03, 2006 12:01 AM

WASHINGTON -- When House members departed last weekend for summer vacation, they handed a painful choice to senators left behind in 100-degree Washington heat. The haughty Senate could either rubber-stamp two complicated bills passed by the House or face real-life consequences. When it took the former course, the Republican-controlled Congress again had abandoned conservative doctrine.

This abandonment bears the imprint of Rep. Bill Thomas, the domineering House Ways and Means Committee chairman, in his farewell congressional performance. He combined GOP-sought estate tax relief with the minimum wage increase long blocked by Republicans as job-killing wage fixing. In accepting this, Republican lawmakers cast doubt on what they really believe.

A lame-duck committee chairman overpowering Congress connotes weak leadership in both House and Senate and a president detached from legislative activity. As the summer break approached, Congress was going nowhere on immigration and lobbyist controls, and long ago gave up on Social Security and tax reform called for by President Bush. But non-passage of two bills would bring real-life consequences.

The first such bill dealt with private pension plans, now $450 billion in the hole. Missing a Sept. 13 deadline would mandate a federal bailout of two airlines, Northwest and Delta. The other measure is the "extenders bill," continuing some 40 expiring corporate tax breaks. Unless passed by the Sept. 15 tax deadline, many corporations must restate their earnings -- antagonizing executives as Republicans dun them for 2006 campaign contributions.

I first heard on July 12 that House Republicans were planning to merge minimum wage and estate tax legislation. Thomas last week combined them with the extenders bill. Arrogant, acerbic and authoritarian, the chairman was going out with a bravura performance (refusing to walk across the Capitol to meet with senators). Last week, senators cooled their heels for hours while waiting for Thomas and other House members to attend a meeting.

Sen. Charles Grassley, Thomas's counterpart as Senate Finance Committee chairman, was furious. He had planned to sweeten his pension bill with the popular extender measure. An enraged Grassley burst uninvited into a meeting of House Republican leaders. He and Thomas, long locked in mutual contempt, attacked each other face-to-face at a Thursday night meeting. But Grassley was undercut by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's support of Thomas's plan.

House Republican leaders next swallowed the 41 percent minimum wage hike -- under duress. Moderate Eastern and Midwestern House members, many threatened for re-election and embarrassed by failure to raise minimum wages, issued a ultimatum: Without the minimum wage, they would block scheduled House adjournment last Friday. The moderate tail again was wagging the conservative dog in the House.

Conservative Republican Reps. Mike Pence and Jeff Flake tried to soften the higher minimum wage's impact on small businesses by joining it with a plan to cut their health care costs. They were told this would be doomed in the Senate by the "Big Blues" (Blue Cross and Blue Shield).

"It's about time we increased the minimum wage!" Thomas told the House. That triggered instant conversion by Republican debaters, extolling the minimum wage as a positive good, with or without estate tax relief. When fellow Republicans tried to convince Pence that this was shrewd politics, the third-term congressman from Elwood, Ind., replied: "I didn't come here to pass wage controls." But only 20 other Republicans joined Pence and Flake in voting against Thomas's concoction. The consensus at a Senate Republican conference Monday was positive (though Grassley did not attend).

Thomas, the fabled legislative mechanic, added $3.9 billion over 10 years for the "abandoned mine lands" program to attract mining state Democrats (perhaps including Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia). He also put in the bill state and local tax deductions and writeoffs for higher education expenses, among other goodies. Earlier, the bill took on a timber tax break intended to snare Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, facing a vigorous re-election challenge in Washington state.

At this writing, it appears all this will pass the Senate untouched by week's end. But most Democrats are opposed, chiding Republicans that they embraced a higher minimum wage only if tied to the estate tax. Having abandoned its principles, the GOP can't even get credit from its opposition.