House of Cards
With party discipline fraying, Republicans fear that congress could become a free-for-all
Republican leaders sat in shock in the House of Representatives as they watched a $142.5 billion spending bill for health and education go down in defeat. It was the worst such loss for the Republican majority in a decade as 22 members stood with a united Democratic Party. The mostly moderate Republicans objected to cuts in popular social welfare programs and, in some cases, the lack of earmarked pork barrel projects. It was not until the dark hours of Friday morning, with the lure of the Thanksgiving recess looming, that party leaders were able to eke out a symbolically important deficit-reduction bill--by two votes. And that came only after Republicans restored money to entitlement programs such as Medicaid and food stamps and appeased moderates by agreeing not to open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a top Bush administration priority since he was elected in 2000. Before the vote, fiscal conservative Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, framed the debate starkly: "If this bill fails, the Republican revolution is over."
It was that kind of week. Accustomed to battling Democrats across the aisle, Republicans have instead taken aim at one another in Congress and across Washington at the White House. A party that has largely marched in lockstep with the President over the past five years--successfully passing tax cuts, a prescription drug plan, and the No Child Left Behind act--now appears to be stumbling on a variety of issues, including an unusual public challenge by the president's own party to the White House's Iraq war policy.
With the president's percentage approval rating in the mid-30s, the lowest point of his presidency, and the war in Iraq proving an albatross for the party, Republicans have started to distance themselves from the Bush administration as they look ahead to the 2006 midterm elections (it may be slight comfort, but polls also show that voters hold an equally dismal view of congressional Republicans and Democrats). The fault lines, present for years, are now more apparent in the absence of the iron-fisted leadership of former Majority Leader Tom DeLay. "The precipitous plunge in the polls for the president has created a great unease among Republicans," says Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution. "They now seriously entertain that they could lose their majority in one or both houses of Congress during the midterm elections." That would leave Republicans in a situation similar to the one Democrats faced in the 1994 election when President Bill Clinton's early legislative travails led to a decisive Republican victory.
Hanging over Republicans is the steady erosion of the public's support for the war. A CNN/ USA Today /Gallup poll showed that 63 percent of the public opposes the president's handling of Iraq. The White House tried to go on the offensive and criticize Democrats for questioning the administration's use of prewar intelligence, saying Congress had access to the same data as the president and calling such questions "dishonest and reprehensible." Instead, the White House was forced back on its heels after Republicans in the Senate overwhelmingly joined Democrats, in a 79-to-19 vote, to push the administration for greater oversight of the war--although an earlier effort by Democrats would have been more stringent and required a timetable to withdraw troops.
Indiscipline. "I think he [Bush] has lost his grip on the decision-making process. It's not just trying to distance yourself for election reasons," says Mickey Edwards, a former eight-term Republican congressman from Oklahoma. "I think it's a deeper disagreement." The Senate and White House have been sharply at odds over proposed legislative restrictions to harsh interrogations in the war on terrorism, with the Senate passing a bill that outlaws cruel and degrading treatment of detainees. The move succeeded over the objections of Vice President Dick Cheney. who had personally lobbied on Capitol Hill for the CIA to be exempted. The House will consider a version of the bill, but the White House has already threatened a veto.
As the split between the White House and Capitol Hill widens, fiscal conservatives and moderates in the party have broken out in a brawl after Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq swelled the budget. Conservatives say the stakes have never been higher: "We are simply on an unsustainable trend on spending," says Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. "If we can't even take this miniscule step toward fiscal responsibility, then we're done as a functioning majority. You have members who simply will turn their cannon fire away from Democrats and toward their own leadership."
Despite the infighting, Republicans have managed to notch some legislative wins, including a Senate bill that would extend tax cuts. They are also working toward an agreement to extend the Patriot Act. As lawmakers head home to their districts for recess, they are likely to get an earful from grumpy constituents. For those in contested races--and there may be more of those than expected--that may mean continuing to distance themselves from the party and the president.
This story appears in the November 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.