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On the Hill And At Home, GOP Is Torn By Internal Strife

By Jackie Koszczuk, CQ Staff Writer

(CQ, April 4) -- Though Republicans have known for some time that their political revolution was sputtering, they may come to view events of the past few weeks as its last gasp.

More than once, the House and Senate floors have been consumed by rhetorical fire as GOP colleagues accused each other of betraying the principles that brought them to power in 1995. The divisions were neither strictly ideological nor tactical but rather a dangerous combination of the two -- centrist Republicans who view themselves as pragmatists close to the American mainstream versus the social and fiscal conservatives who are tactically more aggressive and believe the party should be defending principle over tepid legislative outcomes.

The party fractured on bill after bill in the days leading up to the two-week spring recess. A $218 billion transportation bill (HR2400) went to the House floor with Republicans accusing their brethren of the same sort of pork barrel spending and fiscal recklessness that they once blamed on the arrogant Democratic majority. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leader of the hard-liners, accused fellow Republicans of robbing "our children's piggy bank." Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said bleakly, "Sadly, the revolution is coming to a grinding halt."

Each side blamed the other for the party's malaise, and party leaders sought to calm departing lawmakers by describing the tensions as inevitable and ultimately surmountable.

Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said in an April 1 interview, "Majority parties inevitably sustain tension. Ninety-five percent of the time when the tension is done, we routinely win. The hard-line elements in our party end up voting yes. The House will work its will. The key is everyone getting to participate."

The historian-turned-Speaker noted that the Democratic Party for more than three decades ending in the 1960s embraced both a growing African-American contingent and white segregationist committee chairmen. The Republicans were torn asunder for an even longer period at the turn of the century by warring Western and Midwestern populists and Eastern establishmentarians, he said.

It is not lost on Gingrich that he faces the same sort of intransigence from some of his rank-and-file members that he himself perpetrated against Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush and the GOP congressional leadership during his days as a mouthy backbencher.

"The people who came here in the last few years are values-driven," he said. "I look at a lot of the younger members and I see myself. So I never feel threatened."

The question Republicans and political analysts are beginning to ask, though, is whether the increasingly restive forces threaten the party's hold on power.

Republicans appear to be in no short-term trouble -- most handicappers give them a clean shot at maintaining their majority in November. But the bigger picture is not quite as comforting for the GOP.

Grim Poll for the GOP

According to new data compiled by the Pew Research Center, voters now believe that Democrats are better able to effect needed change than Republicans. The Democratic edge is 45 percent to 32 percent, a reversal from four years ago, when the public believed the GOP to be their agents of change, 51 percent to 34 percent.

The poll also found Republicans suffering in the generic matchup, which tracks voters' general preferences between the parties without naming specific congressional candidates. Democrats won 52 percent to 40 percent, significantly widening a gap that stood at only 48-45 percent in favor of Democrats last summer.

"The Republican Party has lost its voice and its salience with the American public," said Pew Director Andrew Kohut. "Democrats are in a stronger position on a whole range of issues. This is a very bad report card for the Republican Party. The arguments they are having are getting in the way of a clear message."

Lawmakers will find more bad news at home. The same divisions that have stalled their admittedly meager legislative agenda in Washington are taking hold in primary races in open-seat contests where the party has the opportunity to build on its narrow House majority.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who has monitored the trend, has identified about 10 congressional races in competitive districts where conservative, tactically aggressive Republicans are duking it out with moderate, tactically temperate Republicans.

"We're seeing, both in Washington and in these districts, the same fundamental arguments within the Republican Party. What's the agenda and how do we get there?" Rothenberg said.

The clearest recent example of how this dynamic can hang up the party was the March 10 special election to fill the California 22nd District seat of Walter Capps, who died in office. Conservative GOP candidate Tom Bordonaro lost the general election to Democrat Lois Capps, Capps' widow, after defeating a moderate in the primary. (Weekly Report, p. 687)

The result sparked a bitter round of finger-pointing among Republicans. Social conservatives led by Family Research Council President Gary Bauer accused the GOP leadership and establishment Republicans, who backed Bordonaro's primary opponent, of undermining Bordonaro. Party leaders blamed conservatives for turning off the district's moderate voters with shrill anti-abortion television advertising.

Republican vs. Republican

While the California race does not necessarily portend similar results in the contests to be decided in November, the similarities are sufficient to make Republicans uneasy.

For example, in Oregon's 1st District -- a swing district with a significant number of liberal Democratic and moderate Republican voters -- a cousin of Bordonaro's, Molly Bordonaro, is the conservative candidate competing with a moderate, Jon Kvistad. Incumbent Democrat Elizabeth Furse is retiring.

The trend is popping up in open contests as well, where Republicans theoretically have a better chance of picking up seats and expanding their stiflingly narrow majority in the House.

In the Pennsylvania 15th, another swing district, the contest is for the open seat of retiring Democratic Rep. Paul McHale. Conservative Republican Bob Kilbanks is battling moderate Republican Pat Toomey for the nomination. "There are clear differences in both ideology and temperament between the two," Rothenberg said. State Sen. Joe Ulliana is also vying for the nomination.

Rep. David L. Hobson, R-Ohio, said, "The same thing could happen to us that happened to the Democrats. They started getting all these ultra-liberals that didn't fit their districts, and they lost a lot of races."

Many conservatives believe that moderates are overstating the threat to the party. "What moderates need to understand, and what the leadership ought to understand, is we win elections because of conservatives," said Sen. Robert C. Smith, R-N.H. "The party elite treats us like a force that has to be tolerated and not embraced. We expect to be embraced. If we are going to be merely tolerated, there are going to be serious problems.

"Then there will be a third party, and the bad news is, the Republican Party will be the third party."

Gingrich said the party always runs a risk of losing general elections with candidates who are too conservative but sees no trend emerging.

"There is no danger in any unique way of going too far to the right," he said. "People who win primaries do so because they win more votes. As a general principle, primary winners are better equipped to also win votes in the general."

Rothenberg disagrees, although he thinks Republicans will maintain their majority in November. "Of course there is cause for concern," he said. "To the extent that these primaries get heated and very bitter and very polarized, it makes it very difficult for the winning candidate to sell himself or herself as in the mainstream later in the general election."

That dynamic is currently playing out in Illinois, where the GOP nominee against Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun is staunch conservative Peter G. Fitzgerald. Before the March 17 primary, he was tagged by former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole of Kansas and others as too extreme to beat Moseley-Braun. Now, he must overcome that stigma to appeal to the state's many moderate Republican and independent voters.

In Congress, Republicans have found themselves bogged down by internal fights on just about every major bill they have attempted to pass this year. As a result, they are getting off to a slow start on such basics as the fiscal 1999 budget resolution and the 13 must-pass appropriations bills.

The Republican majority has lagged behind schedule in previous years as well, but leaders could usually cite a heavy legislative load as justification. This year, GOP leaders have no such excuse. The workload is modest, designed to keep members at home campaigning on previous accomplishments, such as last year's balanced-budget deal.

This year's budget resolution, which by statute should be completed by April 15, passed the Senate on April 2. But the House version is not out of committee. Because appropriators take their cues about overall spending from the budget, the appropriations bills could also get off to a late start.

Kasich-Shuster Hostility

The House and Senate have been preoccupied with a few initiatives that, while not far-reaching, have surfaced the party's factions and their frustrations.

For instance, the transportation bill (HR2400) is a pretty basic fare -- a six-year reauthorization of highway and transit programs. But in the House, fiscal conservatives led by Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, have savaged their GOP colleagues for outdoing even the former Democratic majority by stuffing the measure so full of earmarked projects that it grossly exceeds the spending limits in last year's budget deal. (Highway bill, p. 882)

The disagreement developed into open hostility between two powerful chairmen, Kasich and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bud Shuster, R-Pa. "It's become personal between them," said one House Republican. "It's hard to have a rational conversation with one about the other."

The bill faces major difficulties in a post-recess conference between the House and Senate. The House bill is $4 billion larger than the Senate's version, and it allocates more to highways and less to mass transit than the Senate bill. And President Clinton has objected to exceeding the budget deal's caps.

A supplemental spending bill is also tied in knots. The House on March 31 passed a nearly $3 billion bill (HR3579) for domestic disaster aid and military operations in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf. But the Senate version (S1768) contains nearly $18 billion for the International Monetary Fund that House conservatives strenuously oppose. The House bill also includes controversial offsetting spending cuts -- some from Clinton's most cherished domestic programs -- while the Senate version does not.

Social Agenda

Meanwhile, social conservatives have increasingly criticized party leaders for failing to act on abortion, school prayer and other of their priorities. "It is critical between now and November that we do some things on the social agenda," said Rep. David M. McIntosh, R-Ind., a leader of House conservatives.

After the recess, conservatives plan to push for action on legislation to do away with the marriage penalty in the tax code, for an override vote of Clinton's veto of a ban on so-called partial- birth abortions and for riders on appropriations bills, such as one that would require parental notification for young women receiving federal family planning services.

McIntosh said that frustration has reached acute levels since last year's budget deal, which many fiscal conservatives felt went too far in accommodating Clinton.

"First the party told social conservatives to go to the back of the bus, and then fiscal conservatives did not do that well, either," McIntosh said.

Grover Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, said: "There's an understandable frustration. You have a Republican majority in the House and Senate but you don't have a conservative majority. And there's a sense of, why aren't we winning?"

Norquist said conservatives continually underestimate what the GOP has accomplished. Since coming to power, Republicans have succeeded in balancing the budget and killing or phasing out entrenched entitlement programs that provided welfare benefits and farm subsidies. "Just a couple of years ago, people said you can't get rid of entitlements," he said.

Despite their internal troubles, congressional Republicans note that they have several months remaining to work things out. "Conservatives outside of Congress are concerned, but inside Congress, we have the means of taking care of things," said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich., a moderate. "You sit down, you thrash it out and you resolve it."

John J. Pitney Jr., an associate professor at California's Claremont McKenna College who has long studied congressional Republicans, said: "Political factionalism always brings risks. There is always trouble on the horizon. But the Republican Party is in no immediate danger of implosion. It's a party learning the art of conflict management."

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday April 4, 1998

All-But-Doomed Overhaul Bill Meets Its Expected End
On the Hill And At Home, GOP Is Torn By Internal Strife
House Sets Up Battle With Senate In Passing $219 Billion Roads Bill
Decision In Paula Jones Case Leaves Starr Determined, Congress Uneasy
District Runoff For Gonzalez Seat Could End With Favored Son


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