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GOP Moderates Willing to Defy Party

Politics: At first, they helped to move Bush's agenda. Now there is an air of uncertainty on Capitol Hill.

July 23, 2001|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — 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.

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