Saturday, July 08, 2006

G.O.P. Agenda in House Has Moderates Unhappy

The New York Times
G.O.P. Agenda in House Has Moderates Unhappy

WASHINGTON, July 7 — Moderate Republicans say a planned summer push by the House leadership on conservative causes like gun rights and new abortion restrictions threatens the re-election prospects of embattled centrists, who are key to the party's drive to hold Congress.

Frustrated and angry, they say the leadership's new American Values Agenda, a list of initiatives heavy on ideological themes, seems short-sighted and ill-timed considering that few conservatives are at serious risk in November.

"It was stupid and gross," said Representative Christopher Shays, Republican of Connecticut. "They have this obsession to satisfy conservative Republicans who will probably be re-elected no matter what happens. They get job satisfaction, but they are making it more difficult for me to win my race."

Mr. Shays and others said the announcement of the agenda took them by surprise, particularly after House Republicans seemed to be back on track after a few strong weeks of emphasizing new fiscal controls and a push on national security issues. House moderates have also been supportive of the leadership's hard line against the idea of potential citizenship for illegal immigrants, saying that reflects public sentiment.

But they fear that this new agenda could backfire by stirring independent voters to reject centrist candidates even if they do not totally embrace the party leadership's conservative tilt.

"I don't think it is a good agenda to go into the election cycle with," said Representative Michael N. Castle of Delaware, another moderate Republican.

Republican leaders disputed the idea that the values agenda could harm centrists, saying the lawmakers could establish their independence by voting against select initiatives if they choose. They say that members will be judged on their own records and that even Democratic-leaning seats held by Republicans have core groups of conservative voters who need to be motivated. And they know that the votes will also be difficult for Democratic incumbents in conservative locales.

"I don't mind people having to make tough votes," said Representative Thomas M. Reynolds, Republican of New York and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The unrest among House moderates reflects a seeming contradiction in the campaign strategy being mapped out by Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and at the White House: While the emphasis is being placed on rallying conservatives, many of the must-win races are in more moderate regions of the Northeast, Midwest and suburban South and West.

In the latest review of House races by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, more than 20 of the 35 Republican seats considered most threatened were closely divided areas of Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania and districts in Arizona, Colorado and Florida where independents could be crucial. Thirteen of the 35 were carried by the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004.

"If you took the top 10 to 20 targeted races, it probably helps about three of them," said Mr. Shays, who said he was so upset by the leadership's agenda that he skipped a meeting of House Republicans rather than risk losing his temper over the initiatives.

In announcing the agenda, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois said that it would allow lawmakers to vote on basic values like the "sanctity of life" while defending the nation's founding principles.

Besides a potential series of votes on family tax breaks, the legislative lineup for the weeks ahead included initiatives that would prohibit any government from using federal money to confiscate guns during emergencies; ensure that local governments do not have to pay damages or lawyer fees in court battles over public expressions of religion, and protect the Pledge of Allegiance from being found unconstitutional.

The agenda also includes a measure to ban human cloning and one requiring that those performing late-term abortions inform women seeking the procedure that the fetus could feel pain and could receive anesthesia. House Republican leaders also plan a vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, even though it could not be adopted in this Congress because it has already been rejected by the Senate.

"There are no surprises here," said Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the majority leader. "We have members who want to vote on a number of these provisions, and we are going to vote. It is part of our job."

Democrats say the ideologically tinged votes could benefit their candidates in areas where they hope to defeat Republicans.

"It reminds people that the Republican Party is the party of Terri Schiavo," said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, referring to Republican intercession this year in the case of the Florida woman whose husband wanted her removed from a feeding tube.

Critics of the agenda said the leadership acted with little fanfare in unveiling it, which they interpreted as a sign that it was undertaken mainly to appease conservatives and that the leadership was not committed to making it a centerpiece of the remaining weeks of Congress.

There are no guarantees that all the proposals will even reach the floor. The measure regarding the Pledge of Allegiance temporarily stalled in committee when too few Republicans showed up to vote, but the leadership said it planned to bring that bill and another piece of the agenda — a ban on Internet gambling — before the full House when lawmakers return next week.

Other Republicans are pushing the House to emphasize what advocates are calling a "suburban agenda," a series of bills pertaining to issues like online and school safety, health care and education savings. And moderates were cheered by a new Senate agreement to allow debate on expanded stem cell research.

But with Congress scheduled to be in session only for July and September before adjourning, moderates say that lawmakers need to be selective about where they put their energy and that the values issues could eat up scarce time.

"I am not going to disparage these particular initiatives," said Jonathan Stevens, policy director at the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate group. "I understand what they are trying to do. But what my members are much more concerned about are the more tangible, everyday major issues such as health care, the budget and defense."