Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, at age 38 and having served less than five terms, did not leap over a dozen of his seniors to become ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee by bashing GOP leaders. But an angry Ryan last Wednesday delivered unscripted remarks on the House floor as the farm bill neared passage: "This bill is an absence of leadership. This bill shows we are not leading."

Ryan's fellow reformer, 45-year-old Jeff Flake of Arizona, in his fourth term, is less cautious about defying the leadership and has been kept off key committees. On Wednesday, he said of a $300 billion bill that raises farm subsidies and is filled with non-farm pork, "Sometimes, here in Washington, we tend to drink our own bath water and believe our own press releases."

A majority of both Senate and House Republicans voted for a bill that raises spending 44 percent above last year's, dooming chances to sustain President Bush's promised veto. GOP leaders were divided, with Bush sounding an uncertain trumpet. Today's Republican Party -- divided, drifting, demoralized -- is epitomized by the farm bill.

At the moment Congress passed the farm bill, Republican were terrified by the previous day's defeat in the Mississippi 1st Congressional District, the third straight supposedly safe Republican seat lost in special elections. Fearing a November tsunami for the Democrats, incumbent Republicans talked about following their new standard-bearer, John McCain, against pork. But that's not the way they voted last week.

George W. Bush was just as ambivalent last week. In 2002, he signed a massive farm bill. But with Democrats in control of Congress, Bush preaches the old time religion. Addressing the House Republican caucus behind closed doors at the White House May 7, he disclosed that he would veto the farm bill, then implied it was all right if members "voted their districts" -- that is, if the "aggies" supported the bill. This message was pressed on his colleagues by Rep. Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee.

Nevertheless, would the party's leadership in Congress push hard enough to produce enough votes to sustain a veto? There was never any hope in the Senate, where Republican Leader Mitch McConnell not only supported the farm bill but earmarked a tax provision benefiting horse farms in his state of Kentucky. But in the House, Republican Leader John Boehner always has been anti-pork, even if passive about exhorting other Republicans to follow his example.

Robert Novak

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

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