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Ambitious Goals Will Test GOP’s New Muscle

Times Staff Writer

Republicans may have picked up only a handful of seats in Congress on election day, but they have been acting ever since as if they’d been carried by a conservative landslide.

Emboldened Republicans have strengthened the hand of their conservative leadership and have brought moderate colleagues to heel. In last week’s postelection session of Congress, they jammed an antiabortion rider into the last budget bill of the year.

And Republican leaders, apparently undeterred by the fact that they still will have a relatively narrow majority when the new Congress opens in January, embraced President Bush’s ambitious second-term agenda of overhauling Social Security and the tax code.

“My fellow conservatives, we have waited our entire lives for the chance the American people have given us in the next two years,” a triumphant House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said in a recent speech to a conservative group. “I pledge to each and every one of you, we will seize it.”

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Congress’ weeklong lame-duck session also showed Bush that the conservative exuberance unleashed by GOP gains may not always be directed behind his agenda. A group of senior House Republicans defied direct lobbying from Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and blocked a vote on an intelligence reform bill sought by the White House.

The rebuff signaled that, with Bush’s reelection behind him, the party unity he commanded in Congress may be hard to maintain as lawmakers start becoming more forthright about their differences on government spending, policy in Iraq and other issues on which dissent has been kept largely behind closed doors.

In flexing their muscles, congressional Republicans are taking a cue from Bush, who has seemed more self-confident than ever in the wake of his reelection. He has moved aggressively to consolidate his power and pack his Cabinet with unwavering loyalists.

A key question is whether Bush and his expanded Republican majorities will overreach their mandate. Democrats blazed that path in 1992, when President Clinton was elected with a Democrat-controlled Congress -- and failed spectacularly to overhaul the healthcare system.

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Republicans fell into the same trap when they took control of Congress in the 1994 elections for the first time in 40 years. They came to power with conservative guns blazing; a year later they took a political drubbing for a budget fight with Clinton that temporarily shut down part of the government. Many Republicans are eager to avoid that kind of mistake.

“There are a lot of people saying, ‘This is our moment; this is the time to put the pedal to the metal to get our agenda done,’ ” said Mark Isakowitz, a Republican strategist. “They are also saying, ‘Let’s make sure we’re smart about it.’ ”

By the numbers, Republican gains in Congress in this month’s elections were relatively small. They picked up four seats in the Senate, producing a 55-45 majority, short of the 60 votes they need to break a filibuster. In the House, Republicans added two seats to their margin, with two Louisiana seats to be decided in a Dec. 4 runoff. For now, their margin of control is 231 to 202.

That has done nothing to dampen the triumphal mood of conservatives in Washington. As Congress met to finish the work of this year’s session -- and to hold private party meetings to choose leaders for the next year’s session -- it became clear that Bush and his allies were swinging for the fences.

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Conservatives in the Senate demanded that moderate Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) swear fealty to the party line as a condition of becoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Specter, who supports abortion rights, infuriated conservatives when he said after election day that Bush’s judicial nominees would have trouble winning Senate confirmation if they opposed abortion rights.

Specter spent days meeting with Republican colleagues to win their backing. He got it only after issuing a formal statement promising to support nominees and to not impose an abortion-rights litmus test on them.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) signaled a willingness to get tough in the fight over Bush’s judicial nominees. Frustrated by Democrats’ use of the filibuster against nominees they opposed, Frist threatened to overturn Senate precedent to make it impossible to filibuster a judicial nomination.

Nowhere was Republicans’ self-confidence -- along with the risk of overreaching -- clearer than in their vote to drop a rule that prohibited members from keeping a leadership post if indicted. It amounted to a preemptive strike against a possible indictment of DeLay, whose political associates have been under investigation by a prosecutor in Texas.

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Before the elections, Republicans were buzzing with questions about whether DeLay had lost his chance to one day become House speaker because he had been rebuked three times by the House Ethics Committee for his hard-charging tactics in raising money, corralling votes and dealing with lobbyists. But after election day -- when Republicans gained five seats in Texas, thanks to a bold redistricting plan championed by DeLay -- they were in a grateful mood.

In the Senate, Frist succeeded by one vote in winning new powers from his rank and file. Senate Republicans gave him authority to assign members to the Senate’s plum committees, challenging the tradition that seniority dictated committee posts.

Frist said the change was simply a management tool, but GOP moderates called it a power grab to suppress dissent.

“There is only one reason for that change and it is to punish people,” Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) told reporters.

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On the policy front, there are other signs of Republicans’ increased self-assurance. Before the election, Republican leaders shied away from a vote on legislation to raise the ceiling on the federal debt -- a measure that Democrats were ready to portray as a testament to Republican profligacy. But last week, Congress was bold enough to pass a debt-limit increase without resorting to the common tactic of tucking the measure into a more popular bill.

In crafting the year-end spending bill, House Republicans demanded inclusion of an antiabortion provision that had been resisted by the Senate before the elections. The provision will limit the ability of federal, state and local governments to deny government aid to hospitals and healthcare providers that refuse to offer abortion services or referrals.

Democrats derided the move as a sign that Republicans were beholden to Christian conservatives, who played an important role in Republicans’ election gains.

The House rejection of the intelligence reorganization was a reminder of the difficulties Bush may face in holding together the unwieldy coalition that elected him -- which includes foreign policy hawks, political moderates, social conservatives and free-market advocates. It also suggests that Republicans in Congress may feel less obliged to abide by Bush’s wishes in his second term.

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“Without a presidential election bearing down on people in the party, there will be more willingness to go public with disagreements,” said David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute, which has complained about the vast growth in government spending during Bush’s first term.

Still, Republicans seem committed to Bush’s agenda. They are talking forthrightly about Bush’s proposals to overhaul Social Security and the tax code.

For years, Republicans have talked about but shied away from plans to allow workers to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in private accounts. Democrats have lambasted the idea as an attempt to dismantle the government’s most popular program.

Members of both parties pay lip service to the idea of simplifying the tax code, but there is no consensus -- even among Republicans -- about how best to reform the system. It is a political minefield because so many of the tax breaks that make the code complicated -- such as the mortgage interest deduction -- enjoy the support of powerful business interests or the broad middle class.

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As a result, many analysts and even many Republicans argue that Bush is unlikely to achieve both reforms before the 2006 midterm elections. But in a speech Friday to the conservative Council for National Policy, DeLay set the bar high.

“Much of the talk about Social Security and tax reform in Washington these days is about which will be tackled in the next two years, and which will be put off until after the 2006 elections,” DeLay said, according to his prepared remarks for the closed-door speech. “The answer, if you’re interested is -- do I have your attention? The answer is that we’re going to do both before the 2006 elections.”

Democrats say that may be a policy overreach that could redound to their political benefit. Some see a parallel to Democrats’ controversial drive to reform healthcare under Clinton -- which was followed by the Republicans’ takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections.

If Republicans try to transform Social Security and eliminate popular tax deductions, said Dan Maffei, spokesman for Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, “we’ll get out the blue paint and start painting over the red states.”

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