WASHINGTON -- A loyal Republican congressman, heartsick that George W. Bush had capitulated to Ted Kennedy and George Miller on education, last Thursday asked a House GOP leader to explain. How could the party leadership support this unholy alliance that so betrayed Republican principles?
While the question was heated, the answer was cool: "We always knew that he (Bush) would go left on education, but that is a small price to pay for a president who is pro-life and pro-defense." He and the other House Republican leaders do not swallow White House propaganda that nothing has been given away to the liberals. However, they see no sense in breaking with their new president on an issue that means so much to him when he is proving staunchly conservative elsewhere.
Six Republicans on the House Education and Workforce Committee, defying their president and their leadership Wednesday as the bipartisan measure carried 41 to 7, believe federalization of the school system is too high a price. Beyond this single issue lies the habit-forming nature of surrender. Capitulation will not bring President Bush a 33 percent top income tax rate, a reformed Social Security system or a conservative judiciary.
A robust federal role in public schools is itself hard to take for constitutionalists. Still, conservatives in Congress bought the Bush program's decentralization, local flexibility and even some parental choice while swallowing concerns about Washington-dictated testing and Washington-financed spending.
The problem for conservatives was the president's determination to deal with two Democrats who are very unpopular with Republicans: Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the roaring lion of the old liberalism, and Rep. George Miller of California, the belligerent prototype of House Democratic partisanship. To satisfy Kennedy and Miller, flexibility and choice were stripped from the bill while the controls and money remained.
Colleagues repeat the words of second-term Rep. Jim DeMint of South Carolina to a House GOP conference: Bush's slogan of "leave no child behind" became "leave no Democrat behind." Rep. Bob Schaffer of Colorado, a conservative on the Education Committee, told me: "The idea was to do not what is right but what will make George Miller and Ted Kennedy happy."
The final touch was exponential growth of school spending. The Senate version has grown out of control in floor debate, and the bill voted out of the House committee Wednesday doubled Bush's proposed increase in federal school spending -- from 11 percent to 22 percent. This was a Kennedy-Miller bill.
Rather than expressing gratitude, Kennedy took the Senate floor to complain that the final version of the budget did not spend enough for education. "It (the money) just isn't there," the senator shouted. "It is a sham!" But as Kennedy well knows, the budget only provides guidelines. "We're going to go past that like a freight train," Rep. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the Education Committee's seven dissenters, told me.
Graham, running for the U.S. Senate in 2002, would like to restore Bush's specifications on the House floor. So would another dissenter: Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, a senior member of the committee who is close to the leadership. But he sounds pessimistic. "It depends on how much the president wants of his own bill," Hoekstra told me. The answer is not much, particularly when Bush aides lobbying on Capitol Hill stress that the president's approval on education is soaring in the polls.
In just over a hundred days, the Bush White House has shown it does not take dissent kindly. The six Republican no-voters were summoned to be given their marching orders, and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card laid down the law. "Fighting for the president's program is considered bad form," Schaffer said after the meeting.
Nor will they be permitted to fight very hard. Before Graham, Hoekstra, Schaffer and their colleagues could stir up grass roots resentment over the Bush-Kennedy-Miller bill, Republican leaders planned to rush it to the House floor for a Wednesday vote this week. That sets a Tuesday deadline for amendments to a bill that exceeds 900 pages. But time is not the issue. True-believing conservatives become a minority when bipartisanship takes hold.