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
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
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
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,
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
"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
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
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
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
The Republican majority has lagged behind schedule in previous years
as well, but leaders could usually cite a heavy legislative load as
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
The House and Senate have been preoccupied with a few initiatives that,
while not far-reaching, have surfaced the party's factions and their
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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.