Christopher Shays and Sherwood Boehlert

The guests at Thursday's Monitor breakfast - Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Sherwood Boehlert of New York -- are both key players in the Republican Main Street Partnership. The group of moderate Republicans was formed after the 1994 elections and includes 10 senators and 48 House members.

Republican moderates have long considered themselves an endangered species in a conservative-dominated Republican Party. But lately they have had some wins.

"This is the moderates' moment," Boehlert said. "Quite honestly, inadvertently I think, the House Democrats have empowered the [Republican] moderates," he told reporters.

That's because House Democrats have been voting as a bloc, forcing Republican leaders to court moderate Republican votes rather than rely on votes from conservative Democrats to pass legislation. Moderates in the House were able to block plans to expand oil drilling in Alaska. And Main Street members took the lead in blocking some cuts in entitlement programs, like Medicare.

House moderates now are pushing to insert language in a key spending bill that would ban the use of torture by the military and Central Intelligence Agency. It echoes a measure drafted by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona that won passage by a 90 to 9 vote in the Senate.

"I met with [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter] Pace last night, and he said the military has no problem living under their own [field] manual and living under the McCain amendment. No problem whatsoever," Representative Shays said at the crowded breakfast. "He didn't argue that we should pass the legislation. But he said the military can live with it without any problem."

Shays spent a healthy portion of the breakfast talking about the ethical challenges facing his party. "We are going to feel a huge message. Either Congress gets the message now that ethics matters, or we are going to get it on Election Day," Shays said.

Shays was scathing in his criticism of the Bush White House, especially its handling of the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. "This White House has said that loyalty matters more than anything. So then you have to say, 'What is that saying?' It matters more than honesty? It appears that way. It matters more than competence? Well, with Mr. Brown at FEMA it sure seemed to matter. So I think we have huge problems here..."

House majority leader Tom DeLay also came in for criticism. DeLay has asked a Texas judge for an early January trial on money-laundering charges that he faces. His goal is an acquittal before the House reconvenes in late January. "Moderates I think, for the most part, do believe that having Tom DeLay come back to the leadership would be a disaster," Shays said.

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