GOP Moderates Willing to Defy Party

TIMES STAFF WRITER

House Republican moderates, a minority within their increasingly conservative party, have become the squeakiest wheel in the political machine that until recently had helped move President Bush's program with assembly-line efficiency.

After months of providing crucial support for Bush's policies, the moderates have shown a renewed willingness to defy their leadership on issues ranging from offshore oil drilling to campaign finance reform to health policy.

The result has been a new element of uncertainty in upcoming debates on managed health care regulation, energy policy, trade initiatives and federal spending for popular domestic programs. For Bush, the bottom line could be a shorter list of accomplishments during his first year in office than the White House would like.

The tumult in the House is especially distressing to party leaders because they are still reeling from the decision of Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords to desert the GOP in June. That threw the Senate into Democratic hands, leaving Republicans to look solely to the House to press Bush's agenda. But that has proven in recent weeks to be a shaky reed on which to lean.

Just last week, moderate Republicans forced an embarrassing delay in approval of Bush's signature initiative to send more federal money to faith-based institutions. That debate demonstrated the limits as well as the extent of moderates' power to gum up the works: After threatening to derail the bill, moderates caved to heavy leadership pressure and voted for the measure without winning more than token concessions.

A key question for the coming week is which approach moderates will take in debate on a bill to provide new protections for patients of health maintenance organizations: Will they continue to support a bill that Bush has threatened to veto, or will they back an alternative more acceptable to the White House?

Their voices also will prove crucial to debates later this year on Bush's energy proposals and the spending bills that fund the government's operations.

Some of the GOP moderates are reveling in their new-found status. "Our voice is not only found, but heard--and in some instances heeded," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a leader of the group.

But some conservatives grumble that too many moderates are setting themselves at odds with the leadership for political purposes because they come from districts where being seen as independent of the party hierarchy is a plus.

GOP tensions bubbled over during recent debate on campaign finance reform, in which moderate Republicans teamed with Democratic leaders. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) accused them with unusual bitterness of being "unreasonable, uninformed and arrogant" in trying to outmaneuver their opponents.

Restiveness among GOP moderates is a reflection, in part, of a broader political dynamic: House Republicans, having followed White House tax and budget policies with almost lock-step precision, are increasingly pursuing an agenda that reflects their own political needs--which are not necessarily Bush's.

For example, Republicans of all political stripes have been shrugging off Bush's admonitions to keep funding bills lean and clean of home-state projects that critics deride as "pork-barrel" spending. Even House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), one of the House's most conservative members, defied administration wishes and added $1.3 billion in emergency disaster relief aid to a spending bill. (DeLay's Houston district was hit hard by Tropical Storm Allison last month.)

But the most consequential acts of defiance have come from moderates who in recent weeks have cast crucial votes to block expanded oil and gas drilling on public lands and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and to keep Mexican trucks off U.S. roads. Those defections seemed to take the White House and GOP leaders by surprise. It was an abrupt departure from the early months of the administration, when the House easily passed a budget that mirrored Bush's, every major element of his tax cut, and an education bill inspired by his school reform plan.

With things going so smoothly in the House, most early attention focused on the Senate, where moderate Republicans forced Bush to accept a slightly smaller tax cut and the Jeffords defection handed power to the Democrats. White House officials practically took the House for granted.

Moderate Republicans have long been viewed as an endangered species in a party that has moved further to the right over the last 20 years. As their numbers have dwindled in the House and Senate, moderate Republicans have earned a reputation for staking out defiant positions--and then caving to leadership demands. For example, this year many GOP moderates clamored for a provision in the tax cut that would make it contingent on projected surpluses actually materializing; most ended up voting for the tax cut even though no such mechanism was included. Their reputation for inconstancy was part of the reason why so many people were flabbergasted when Jeffords actually followed through on threats to quit the party. Most people assumed he would back down under pressure from Bush and GOP leaders.

Many also expected House moderates to back down in the recent campaign finance reform debate. Goading them to stand firm, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at one closed-door meeting with GOP moderates pointed his finger at each one in turn and asked how they would vote on a key roll call. In the end, 19 Republicans, mostly moderates, defied their leadership by voting to block GOP-backed rules for the campaign finance debate. Those rules, reform advocates feared, likely would have doomed any hopes they had of passing the bill.

That turmoil heightened the stakes when, less than a week later, a threatened rebellion among moderate Republicans forced their leaders to postpone a vote on Bush's "faith-based initiative." A handful of moderates were poised to join Democrats in an effort to add antidiscrimination protections that GOP leaders opposed. After a day of furious lobbying, all but four moderates fell in line and voted Thursday with the leadership to block the Democratic amendment.

The White House may have dodged that bullet, but the agenda for the coming weeks in the House is littered with other divisive issues. Bush's energy policy faces resistance from moderates who oppose efforts to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Although a House committee last week approved the plan, many predict its defeat when it comes to a vote of the full House.

Republican leaders also hope to vote soon on legislation giving Bush more authority to negotiate trade agreements. That, too, will split the GOP, stirring opposition from moderates like Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), whose district includes large contingents of union members opposed to such trade pacts.

The next big test comes in this week's vote on health maintenance organization regulation. One top Democratic strategist worries that moderates' willingness to "cave" on the faith-based initiative bodes badly for Democrats' ability to hold on to GOP allies in the HMO debate.

A coalition of Democrats and mostly moderate Republicans is backing legislation to provide new patient protections, including an expanded right to sue HMOs. When a similar bill came up in 1999, 68 Republicans joined 206 Democrats to pass the measure, co-sponsored by Reps. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).

Bush has threatened to veto this year's version of the Norwood-Dingell bill, saying it would prompt a flurry of unnecessary lawsuits. He has endorsed an alternative that provides a more limited right to sue. Bush and his GOP allies have been working hard to lure the support of Republicans who have backed Norwood-Dingell in the past. He appears to be making some progress. Even Boehlert, one of the core GOP supporters of Norwood-Dingell in 1999, said, "I'm genuinely looking at both packages very seriously."

But Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said moderates' vacillation on the faith-based initiative may not portend problems for Democrats on HMO reform. He contends that the pressure on moderates was particularly intense on the faith-based initiative because it was an issue of great concern to Republicans' socially conservative base. That is a politically important faction of the party that sometimes challenges moderates from the right in GOP primaries. The HMO debate means less to social conservatives, Frank said, "so it's harder to activate the right-wing constituency.'

GOP vote-counters are hopeful they can prevail on the health bill, but are not declaring victory.

"It's doable, " said a GOP leadership aide. "But that doesn't mean it will be done.

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