Not a day goes by when I don’t receive correspondence from readers of this commentary complaining about the Republicans in Congress. Republicans have a majority, readers ask me, so why can’t Republicans do something about immigration or spending or taxes or energy or missile defense or marriage or right-to-life? I have a two-word answer: Liberal Republicans. The media calls them “Moderate Republicans.” There is nothing “moderate” about them. They are Liberals.
The Democrats smell blood. Democrats absolutely are convinced that they will be re-elected as the majority in both houses of Congress in the 2006 elections. So you won’t find Democrats cooperating on any front.
Usually Republicans can count on a handful of Democrats, twenty-some to be more precise, to pass appropriations bills or other controversial measures which come before the House of Representatives. Not now. Even the most reasonable Democrat again sees him- or herself as a committee or subcommittee chair after a dozen years in the wilderness. So Democrats are not about to help Republicans enact any legislation.
Liberal Republicans have tremendous leverage over the rather Conservative Leadership. They are the margin of victory or defeat. A majority, 218 votes if all 435 Members vote, is required to pass legislation in the House. Republicans hold 232 seats. There are anywhere from 22 to 26 Liberal Republicans depending upon the issue. That means that the Leadership could have between 206 and 210 votes to pass measures but would be short of the majority required.
Unless Liberal Republicans get their way they won’t go along with the Leadership, not even to vote for bills aimed at keeping the government going. Thus the House Leadership found itself on the short end of votes when the FY 2006 Labor-HHS Appropriations Bill was up for consideration. All 201 Democrats voted against the Bill. The GOP Leadership thought it had the votes but when the roll call was taken the Leadership was a few votes short. The vote was a tremendous embarrassment for the GOP Leadership.
Likewise, the Deficit Reduction Act, a reconciliation bill, had to be pulled. First, Liberal Republicans demanded that Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and offshore drilling for oil and natural gas be stricken from the Bill. The Leadership reluctantly agreed because without the votes of Liberal Republicans the Bill could not be passed. When the Leadership pulled those items from the Bill it angered Members of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the caucus of House Conservatives. The RSC Members threatened to bring down the Deficit Reduction Bill, which the Leadership pulled from the calendar so as not to cause the Bill to be defeated.
In the Senate Liberal Republicans often do their damage in committee. Because Republicans have a 55-45 margin there is a difference of two votes between the majority and minority parties on each Senate committee. There are at least seven Liberal Republicans, all of whom conveniently sit on different committees. And each Senator is assigned to two major and at least one minor committee. Liberal Republicans sit on most Senate committees.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, is comprised of ten Republicans and eight Democrats. If one Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee were to oppose a judicial nominee the vote would be 9-9, which usually means the nomination would fail. That was the issue early this year when Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee from Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT), who was term-limited. Before Specter was affirmed by his colleagues as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee he was required to sign a pledge that even if he opposed a judicial nominee he would vote the judicial nomination out of Committee, although he might vote against the nominee on the Floor of the Senate. Had Specter not agreed to this and other points of contention he would not be Chairman of Judiciary.
Liberal Republicans usually operate the way Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-ME) did in the Senate Finance Committee. Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-IA) was attempting to move legislation which would have made President George W. Bush’s tax cuts permanent. Senate Finance Committee Democrats, who believe tax cuts would give them fewer dollars to spend on federal programs, opposed the Grassley Bill. Snowe voted with the Democrats and Grassley was forced to postpone consideration of the measure and to negotiate with Snowe.
When President Bush won re-election by a healthy margin and when Republicans increased their margins in both Houses of Congress expectations ran high. Conservatives believed that, at last, good things could be done by the Congress and these good things surely would be signed by the President. The elected Leadership in both Houses at the beginning of the 109th Congress was the most Conservative it had been since the 1920s. William H. (Bill) Frist, M.D. (R-TN), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) were the elected Leadership in the Senate. And Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), Tom DeLay (R-TX), Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Christopher Cox (R-CA) were the elected Leadership in the House. Look at their records -- solid on all issues which count.
Republicans have a majority in Congress but Conservatives do not have a majority. Expectations were built upon the assumption that Congress was Conservative. The elected Leadership reinforced that perception. Now comes reality. Liberal Republicans hold the balance of power. The Leadership either compromises or looses. If it would more fully disclose the facts to the American public the Leadership would not be in the trouble. If the Leadership would say “We simply do not have enough Conservatives to do what you want. Send us 15 more House Members and 6 more Senators and we’ll produce the most remarkable record of the past century. Until we get those extra Members we can’t give you what you are expecting.” No GOP leader will say that. It would be admitting defeat. So the GOP pretends it can do meaningful things when so often Liberal Republicans won’t hear of it.
Pennsylvania small businessman Lester B. Searer said all the Republican Leadership ever does is chortle that Democrats have no agenda. Republicans have no agenda, Searer says, because Republicans have co-opted Democratic issues. They have done so thanks to Liberal Republicans.
What is to be done? Most Liberal Republicans have been in Washington long enough to chair either committee or subcommittee. The Leadership should get the Republican Conference in both Houses to adopt a legislative agenda. Senators and Congressmen would be told in advance that the agenda would include party discipline votes. If a Senator or Congressman would not vote for the GOP agenda he or she could not chair a committee or subcommittee. Just watch how reasonable some Liberal Republicans would become. Chairmanships bring prestige. They bring the opportunity to move issues of interest to the chairs. They bring additional staff and monies with which to run the committee or subcommittee. Few willingly would give up those chairmanships for the sake of voting against ANWR or other divisive issues.
The GOP Leadership won’t propose an agenda because it fears that Liberal Republicans would defect to the Democratic Party. I doubt they would. Many of them could not be elected as Democrats. If they were to defect, so be it. If it meant that because of defections the Democrats would control Congress, well and good. Then at least the situation would be clarified, Liberals in one party, Conservatives in the other. Conservatives then could do the real work for which they were elected free of political blackmail by Liberal Republicans. It would be tough medicine to administer. Some Conservatives wouldn’t like it either because they would not want that kind of penalty hanging over their heads.
Liberal Republicans are like spoiled children. When parents discipline their children the children often scream bloody murder. But as soon as the children realize that their parents are serious children obey their parents. It is time for the Leadership to give the committee and subcommittee chairs a good old political spanking. Watch how the GOP legislative agenda would change for the better. Will it happen?