Conflicts are multiplying between congressional Republican moderates and the White House as President Bush pursues his aggressively conservative second-term agenda.
The unexpected resistance to Bush’s nomination of John R. Bolton as U.N. ambassador from several Senate Republicans marks the latest, and potentially most intense, clash. But battles over Social Security, Bush’s budget proposal and ending the filibuster for judicial nominations also are raising tensions inside the party.
The divisions do not appear as pronounced as the ideological divides among Democrats during Bill Clinton’s presidency. But GOP moderates, especially in the Senate, seem more willing to challenge the administration than during Bush’s first term, which was characterized by historic levels of party unity.
“A lot of the moderates were willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt prior to the election, but now that he’s no longer going to be on the ballot, they are putting their own interest somewhat before the White House’s,” said Marshall Wittmann, a former GOP Senate aide who is an official at the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist party group.
A senior White House official said the recent discord reflected the issues Bush was pushing, rather than diminishing presidential clout.
“I wouldn’t look at it as ‘It’s every man for himself’ because the president has just been reelected. I just think it’s a different issue environment and these are tougher issues,” said the official, who requested anonymity. “It’s not hard for a Republican to support a tax cut. But we are getting into issues that are tougher.”
Bush and GOP leaders could pressure enough moderates to prevail on most key issues. During the president’s first term, the moderates often seemed to speak loudly and carry a small stick, voting for key administration proposals, such as tax cuts, after raising early objections.
Also, Bush’s sky-high job approval ratings among rank-and-file Republicans and his record of helping the GOP gain congressional seats in 2002 and 2004 encourage party discipline.
“Those are very powerful hooks that will keep the Republican caucus more together than apart,” said GOP pollster Bill McInturff.
Yet more turbulence within the party was the last thing most Republicans expected after they expanded their House and Senate majorities in last year’s election.
The signs of insurrection have reached a point where some conservatives believe the White House must confront the dissenting voices more forcefully -- especially as some Republicans’ doubts about Bolton threaten the administration with its first defeat on a top-tier executive branch appointment.
“If the moderates take down Bolton ... then you are really starting to get into threatening the party’s ability to govern,” said Jeff Bell, a veteran conservative strategist. “I think Bush has to call the moderates’ bluff in some way.”
Similarly, conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt predicted dire consequences for the GOP if Republican defectors thwarted the expected effort by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to ban the filibuster for judicial nominations.
“Fundraising for the National Republican Senatorial Committee will crater, and the majority so recently and dearly won could well vanish in a matter of 18 months,” Hewitt said on his Web log last week.
To many observers, the second-term disputes within the GOP appear noteworthy largely in contrast to the party’s unity during Bush’s first term.
GOP House and Senate members managed a much higher degree of cohesion in their voting records than during the presidencies of Republicans George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan or Richard M. Nixon. The Republicans also were much less likely to break with the president than congressional Democrats during Clinton’s first term.
“By the standards of the Democrats ... [the divide among the Republicans] is still pretty modest, but pretty modest means it is still probably a little different than in the first term,” McInturff said.
Even now, the level of defection on most issues remains small. Republicans this year voted almost unanimously to pass bills that limited class-action lawsuits and made it tougher for consumers to declare bankruptcy, both conservative priorities.
But because Senate Democrats are holding together more effectively than during Bush’s first term, even small numbers of GOP defections can sink party priorities, said Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
“The strength of the moderate Republicans derives in no small part from the unity of Senate Democrats,” Franc said.
For instance, seven Senate Republicans joined with Democrats last month to block the administration’s plan to seek major reductions in the growth of spending for Medicaid.
Continued resistance from GOP moderates to large reductions in federal entitlement programs could keep House and Senate negotiators from reaching agreement on a new federal budget, according to Republican sources following the talks.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have indicated they would oppose any attempt to ban the filibuster for judicial nominations. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) seems almost certain to join them. And enough other GOP senators remain uncommitted to leave the outcome in doubt if the issue comes to a vote.
Last week, objections from Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) forced Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) to postpone a vote on Bolton’s nomination until next month. Chafee and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) also have questioned the choice. With all committee Democrats planning to oppose Bolton, a defection by even one Republican would doom his confirmation.
Opposition from moderate Republicans is adding to the administration’s challenge as it confronts unified Democratic resistance to Bush’s plan to carve out private investment accounts from Social Security. Since all Senate Finance Committee Democrats are likely to vote against the idea, it would die in committee if just Snowe, a committee member, holds in her opposition.
Defections by moderates also produced a series of close calls for Bush during recent Senate votes on his budget. Seven Republicans broke from his proposal to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but the plan narrowly survived when it attracted support from three Democrats.
In the House, Republican leaders passed Bush’s budget only after promising skeptical moderates a vote later this year on legislation to loosen the restrictions the president imposed in 2001 on embryonic stem cell research.
Presidents usually find it tougher to herd their party during a second term.
“There is a certain degree of ‘lame-duck-itis’ that sets in,” said Wittmann, who was an aide to McCain before joining the Democratic Leadership Council.
But on several fronts -- such as restructuring Social Security, limiting federal spending and nominating the unwavering conservative Bolton for the U.N. -- Bush is pushing moderates to the limits of their political and philosophical comfort levels.
Antonia Ferrier, Snowe’s communications director, expressed a common sentiment among GOP moderates when she said, “The senator will try to support the president when she can, but there are times when she has to do what is in the best interest of her state.”