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.

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."

For their part, moderate lawmakers argue that their views more broadly reflect those of Americans.

"The public is demanding more results and less extreme rhetoric," says Rep. James Greenwood (R) of Pennsylvania, a leading moderate. "Moderates tend to be more focused on the nuts and bolts of getting things done than going off and fighting battles on abortion and school prayer," he says. "Compromise is not a dirty word among voters."

Among voting-age Americans, about 10 percent consider themselves moderate Republicans, the same number as call themselves fiscal conservatives, according to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, an independent research group in Washington.

Yet Congress tends to be less moderate than voters, because districts are often drawn in ways that concentrate Republicans or Democrats, creating safe seats for relatively conservative and liberal lawmakers.

"If anything, I think Congress and the Republican party has become a little more conservative in the past few years," says moderate Rep. Michael Castle (R) of Delaware. "You tend to have more polarized districts than the population at large, and it tends to add to polarization in Congress."

Nevertheless, the math of a slim majority means moderate voices are magnified, Representative Castle says.

Most weeks on Capitol Hill, 20 to 50 moderates known as the Tuesday Group gather for a luncheon to discuss legislative strategies. ("To prove how moderate we are, we usually meet on Wednesday," Boehlert says.)

Different members take the lead on key issues. Last month, Rep. Jack Quinn (R), who represents a pro-union, Democratic district in New York, rallied two dozen moderates to help force GOP leaders to allow a vote to raise the minimum wage by $1 over two years instead of three.

Closing savings accounts

This month, Rep. Nancy Johnson (R) of Connecticut led a group of moderates to ally with Democrats to propose an alternative to the GOP leaders' bill allowing parents to save up to $2,000 tax-free for private or public-school education. Arguing that public-school construction is a higher priority, the moderates proposed a bill that would subsidize $24.8 billion in bonds to build or renovate schools. Lacking the votes it needed, the GOP leadership pulled its bill from the floor.

Moderates don't always get their way. Recently, Mr. Greenwood and abortion-rights moderates failed to persuade GOP leaders to allow a vote on a substitute amendment to a bill banning "partial birth" abortions. The bill passed the House last week.

Still, Speaker Hastert spends as much time listening to moderates as he does trying to cajole them to fall in line, says Greenwood, who represents moderates at the biweekly full leadership meeting. "The leadership has problems when they try to shut us down and not let us have our votes," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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