President's plans shaken by his own party

Mavericks and moderates exert influence in House from energy to patients' rights.

In the early days of the Bush administration, Republicans in the House lined up loyally for critical votes supporting the president on a tax cut, the budget, education.

Those days are gone.

On issues ranging from cloning to arsenic in the water, drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, and the rights of patients to sue their insurers, the pace is now being set by the maverick and the moderate - not party leaders - in the House.

The rise of the entrepreneurial lawmaker has come to fore just as Congress is pushing to finish several important bills before its August recess. Individual House members are taking on key roles on everything from energy to healthcare to the Bush administration's push for authority to conduct "fast-track" free-trade negotiations.

Clout of a former dentist

Consider Charlie Norwood and the patients' bill of rights.

A vote on the bill could come this week, but only if the White House can budge the Georgia Republican. The former dentist has been angry at how insurers treat physicians ever since his own days in the practice. After years of pushing this issue, Mr. Norwood has become such a credible voice that insiders say the bill's outcome could come down to his one-on-one negotiations with the president, which are continuing this week.

"There's high drama on whether the president can get the votes on patients' bill of rights. It's a fascinating test of whether the moderates will place issues over their loyalty to the White House and the Republican leadership," says Marshall Wittmann, congressional analyst at the Hudson Institute here.

Energy free-for-all

The president is playing defense, too, on his energy plan - again under siege from moderates in his own party. A version of the White House plan comes up for a vote in the House this week.

Early on in the administration, the energy plan looked like another victory that could be lock-stepped through the House. The White House released a detailed plan to increase the nation's energy supply, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Senate Republicans said they would wrap it up by this week's recess. The House was expected to go along.

That scenario broke down when 70 House Republicans voted to block drilling in the Great Lakes and off the Florida coast earlier this month. Some GOP leaders called it treason - not unlike the June defection of former GOP Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont.

Now, the main lines of that plan - especially the focus on expanding the supply of energy through drilling - are in trouble. Moderates are calling for more emphasis on conservation, and have pressed the GOP leadership for separate votes on the most controversial environmental issues, especially drilling in the ANWR.

In the runup to this week's vote, Republican leaders are now simply scrambling to pull together an energy package that can command a majority on the floor.

"Republicans are Republicans for a lot of reasons. Now, we've come to those issues that show we're not in total unity," explains Rep. William Thomas (R) of California, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.

It now looks as though the result will not hew closely to the original White House plan.

On Friday, 19 Republicans joined with Democrats to reject the Bush proposal to lower standards on arsenic in drinking water. They and other moderates are expected to torpedo anti-environment provisions on energy.

While that outcome is not good for the White House, it may boost Republican hopes for holding onto the House in 2002, because it gives moderates a chance to show their independence from more conservative House leaders.

"ANWR is a great vote for many of our members. It shows that [House Speaker Dennis] Hastert and [Majority Whip Tom] Delay aren't pushing them around," says Rep. Thomas Davis (R) of Virginia, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which is focused on 2002.

"Delay and I have different roles," he adds. "My role is to get the House back. My advice to members is to go with conscience and constituents."

For Republicans in suburban districts, an independent record on social issues and the environment is vital to reelection. "It's not that moderates are getting any stronger in the House. It's just the issues," says GOP Rep. Constance Morella, who narrowly won a suburban Maryland seat.

For a White House that needs every Republican vote, the issues aren't going to get any easier.

Last week, Republican moderates in the Main Street Partnership had their first meeting with top White House advisers. The meeting, planned the day after Senator Jeffords quit the party, focused on stem-cell research.

The partnership supports federal funding for research, while Mr. Hastert joins those against it.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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