Monday, December 19, 2005

For Republicans, Internal Changes Are in the Air

By Stuart Rothenberg

It was only a little more than one year ago thatRepublicans were united — united behind President Bush, united in their support for tax cuts and united in their fervor to defeat Democrats at the polls.

As 2005 draws to a close, Republicans are fighting among themselves over spending and domestic programs. One sitting Senator and one House incumbent already face potentially well-funded primary challengers. The party is splintering.

But if you are expecting just another “doom and gloom”column about how bad things are for Bush and his party, you’re mistaken. I’m more interested in changes inside the party (some of which certainly could add to the party’s near-term woes).

Moderate Republicans, including Rep. Mike Castle(Del.) and Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.), long ago labeled as an endangered species within their more conservative party, have reasserted themselves by torpedoing a spending measure that would have made major cuts in domestic spending, and by standing firm against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

But even more interesting is the apparent resuscitation of a breed that was once called the party’s “deficit hawks.”

At least since the advent of supply-side economics in the late 1970s, most establishment conservative Republicans — Bush and Sen. George Allen (Va.) among them — have been more concerned with economic growth and cutting taxes than with balanced budgets orcutting spending.

But the birth of the self-described “Fiscal WatchTeam” in the Senate, which includes conservative GOP Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), JimDeMint (S.C.), John Ensign (Nev.) and Lindsey Graham(S.C.), as well as slightly more moderate Sens. such as John McCain (Ariz.) and John Sununu (N.H.), resurrects what was once an influential constituency within the Republican Party.

These Senate Republicans, as well as some in the House, are sounding themes reminiscent of the deficit hawks of old — that group of GOP legislators (including former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole) who put a higher priority on fiscal restraint than on tax cuts.

In the House, the anti-deficit hawks include Republican Study Committee conservatives such as Reps. Mike Pence (Ind.), Jeb Hensarling (Texas) and TomFeeney (Fla.). True, these Republicans seem more interested in cutting liberal-instituted programs than in slashing spending in general, but their focus on spending is noteworthy given the party’s tendency to throw money at constituents in recent years.

In the near term, these two GOP groups are likely tobe at odds. Any domestic spending proposal greeted warmly by one side is likely to receive the cold shoulder from the other.

These groups could well grow more significant, not less, after next November’s elections. If Democrats make significant House and Senate gains but fail to win majorities in either chamber, GOP leaders will need to find a way to bring moderate Republicans and deficit hawks together to pass major pieces oflegislation.

While narrow GOP majorities in Congress would enhance the positioning of party moderates, it also would create a problem for them. Since these Republicans represent states and Congressional districts that are less conservative (and less likely to support Bush’s policies), they are likely to be more vulnerable in next year’s election.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened in 1982, former President Ronald Reagan’s first midterm election. GOP moderates such as Reps. Larry DeNardis (Conn.), Harold Hollenbeck (N.J.), Arlen Erdahl (Minn.), Charles Dougherty (Pa.) and Margaret Heckler (Mass.) went down to defeat, largely because of the president’s unpopularity.

For Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) and Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.), as well as GOP House Members such as Charles Bass (N.H.), Jeb Bradley (N.H.), Rob Simmons (Conn.), Jim Walsh (N.Y.) and Nancy Johnson (Conn.), 1982 must be an uncomfortable memory.

GOP Congressional losses next year and the further emergence of the anti-spending wing of the party could also impact the Republican presidential race in 2007 and early 2008.

While Republican presidential candidates will always talk about lower taxes, the emergence of deficit hawks on Capitol Hill suggests that some presidential hopefuls might gain traction emphasizing spending restraint, including cuts in the pork that Republican legislators have been stuffing into legislation, rather than dramatic cuts in taxes.

For someone like McCain, who has supported thepresident’s Iraq policy but often has been at oddswith his party on spending and taxes, a Republicanpresidential primary electorate that is more concernedabout fiscal responsibility and cutting pork thanabout taxes wouldn’t be a bad thing. And it’s anotherreason to keep an eye on trends within the GOP and onthe Arizona Republican.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on December 15, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.