GOP lawmakers see more openings to buck their leadership

They take stronger stands on the environment and other issues. Still pending: key tax and spending bills.

With the White House embattled over the war in Iraq, staff legal woes, and slumping approval ratings, Republicans in Congress are struggling to hold their ranks - and to shape an identity apart from the president.

After a bitter debate on the war on the House side, lawmakers recessed Friday with key tax and spending bills still pending - a setup for more drama when legislators return to complete work in December.

These factors are already changing the dynamics in both parties. Both conservatives and moderates in GOP ranks are taking stronger stands on issues ranging from social spending to the environment. And Democrats are exhibiting a disciplined opposition more solid than at any time in the Bush presidency.

"Clearly the [Republican] Party doesn't have the lock-step discipline today that [it] had over the last 10 years," says Chris Edwards, an economist at the Cato Institute in Washington and author of a new book, "Downsizing the Federal Government." "With the elections [of] 2006 coming into people's minds, there are different views on how individuals guarantee their seats and the majority keeps the majority."

Last week, House moderates forced the GOP leadership to adopt broad concessions in their blueprint for $49.5 billion in spending cuts, including dropping a provision that allowed oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Even with these concessions, 14 Republicans, mainly from states that Sen. John Kerry carried in the 2004 presidential election, voted against the GOP leadership's proposed blueprint. It narrowly passed the chamber.

"For members like me, coming from a district where less than 50 percent of voters are Republicans, we look at issues and have to vote on legislation differently from other Republican members," says Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) of Pennsylvania, who voted against the spending cuts.

The move for deeper budget cuts had been prompted by a revolt of House conservatives, led by Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana. They were concerned that the party's base thought the Bush administration and GOP-controlled Congress weren't serious about cutting deficits and curbing big government.

"The [GOP] moderates have an unbroken string of victories over the last four years on spending and the size of government," says Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona. And the moderates are winning the "compassion" debate within the Republican caucus.

"We used to bristle at the argument by Democrats that how much you care can be measured by how much money you spend. Now, it's in everything the GOP conference puts out," he adds.

For the House leadership, the 217-to-215 vote in the early morning hours on Friday was a huge symbolic win. It came at a time when critics, including those within GOP ranks, were saying that the leadership team, without indicted majority leader Tom DeLay, was fumbling.

But for the cuts to take effect, the House and Senate must negotiate a compromise on their respective budget reconciliation bills, and both chambers remain far apart.

The Senate version includes $35 billion in cuts, which take less of a bite out of programs for the poor. Senate GOP leaders say they also hope to move the ANWR provision back into the package. House moderates say such a move would defeat the bill.

"There are definitely 14 solid votes to sink the bill if ANWR is on it. You can take that to the bank," says Rep. Charles Bass (R) of New Hampshire, a leading GOP moderate on the environment.

On Thursday, 22 House Republicans voted down the compromise worked out between the House and Senate over a $602 billion spending bill for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. This sank legislation that the leadership had hoped to get to the president before Thanksgiving. It's back on the "to do" list for December.

At the same time, Democrats opposed the budget savings package 200 to 0. The increasing success of the Democratic leadership in enforcing unity on key votes makes GOP unity all the more crucial.

Another big spending bill, for 2006 Defense appropriations, could hang up in conference on a Senate amendment banning torture of detainees in the war on terror. The White House is threatening to veto it.

In the end, House leaders did not bring to the floor their $56.1 billion tax bill. Instead, they called for a vote on a referendum on remarks by Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, a respected Vietnam combat veteran and leading Democratic hawk, who last week called for a rapid withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

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