In House, driver's seat is in middle of road
With GOP's slim majority, moderates have more power to shape - or block - legislation.
Early most mornings on Capitol Hill, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert works out on a treadmill at the House gym, chitchatting with other regulars like majority whip Tom DeLay.Skip to next paragraph
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But these days, when Mr. DeLay, the top GOP vote-counter, strikes up a conversation with Mr. Boehlert, a stalwart of the House's moderate-Republican faction, the purpose is often intelligence-gathering.
"Frequently, Tom will say, 'What are moderates thinking about this?' " says Boehlert. "That information is precious. The leadership needs to know."
Today, when the House GOP's small but vocal moderate bloc talks, GOP leaders like DeLay often can't afford not to listen.
Indeed, some Congress watchers say the three to four dozen Republican moderates hold more sway in the House now than they have for decades, both shaping - and effectively blocking - legislation. While unnerving party conservatives, moderates say they are helping to push a polarized Congress toward the pragmatic compromises favored by most Americans.
"They are sitting in the catbird seat compared to their situation in the last 20 years," says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the Heritage Foundation here. Boehlert puts it more simply: "This is the moderate moment," he says. "Our time has come."
Power grows, numbers shrink
Ironically, the influence of Republican moderates has grown even as their numbers in Congress have dwindled. One main reason is that the House GOP majority has also shrunk, to 222-to-211, one of the slimmest margins in history.
To pass bills without Democratic backing, House Speaker Dennis Hastert must keep all but a handful of Republicans firmly in line. A couple dozen moderates can easily sideline legislation or demand changes.
In recent months, for instance, moderate Republicans have banded together to help pass a stronger patients' rights bill and a quicker $1 rise in the minimum wage. They have also forced House GOP leaders to link tax cuts to debt reduction and, most recently, to withdraw a bill on education savings accounts.
Increasingly, the pivotal role of moderates is causing a conservative backlash. Frustrated right-wing Republicans charge that the party's middle-of-the-roaders are co-opting Congress's agenda and eroding core GOP principles, such as fiscal restraint.
"[Moderates] are able to hold the Republican free-market agenda hostage to their demands," says Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a new conservative political group. "They are moving to an accommodationist, big-spending, Rockefeller Republican agenda - exactly the opposite of what Republicans say they stand for."
Such "ideological drift" could cost Republicans control of the House in the November election, says Mr. Moore. His group plans to spend $3 million to $5 million on congressional races this year to try to elect more fiscal conservatives - even if it means unseating moderate incumbents.
For example, the club is helping fund GOP contender Scott Garrett, a New Jersey legislator known for tax and spending cuts, in a primary against moderate Rep. Marge Roukema (R), whom Moore calls "hostile to tax reform."