By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 11, 2005
House Republican leaders were forced to abruptly pull their $54 billion budget-cutting bill off the House floor yesterday, amid growing dissension in Republican ranks over spending priorities, taxes, oil exploration and the reach of government.
A battle between House Republican conservatives and moderates over energy policy and federal anti-poverty and education programs left GOP leaders without enough votes to pass a budget measure they had framed as one of the most important pieces of legislation in years. Across the Capitol, a moderate GOP revolt in the Senate Finance Committee forced Republicans to postpone action on a bill to extend some of President Bush's most contentious tax cuts.
The twin setbacks added to growing signs that the Republican Party's typically lock-step discipline is cracking under the weight of Bush's plummeting approval ratings, Tuesday's electoral defeats and the increasing discontent of the American electorate. After five years of remarkable unity under Bush's gaze, divisions between Republican moderates and conservatives are threatening to paralyze the party.
"The fractures were always there. The difference was the White House was always able to hold them in line because of perceived power," said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster. "After Tuesday's election, it's 'Why are we following these guys? They're taking us off the cliff.' "
Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) did not dispute that.
"One of the challenges of any second-term administration is you always lose a certain amount of identification with the Congress, because everybody in the Congress in the first term knows you'll be out there in the next campaign with them," Blunt said in an interview yesterday. "Your motives are always a little more suspect when you don't have to face the voters again."
The House budget vote was supposed to reestablish the Republican commitment to a smaller government that would change the federal approach to Medicaid, food stamps, agriculture subsidies, student loans and a host of other programs.
But moderate Republicans made it clear that was not the way they wanted the party defined. The GOP leadership had already abandoned a provision in the budget that would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a policy goal Bush has embraced since he came to office. But it was not enough to secure the votes of moderates who said remaining policy changes were hitting the nation's most vulnerable citizens just as the party was preparing another round of tax cuts that would benefit the most affluent.
"I've told the leadership they're asking for the dismantling of the Republican conference" with this budget, said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a leading moderate. "The clear evidence from Tuesday's election results is that Americans are moderate. They need to start listening to us."
For their part, House conservatives said the leadership had erred in accommodating the left-leaning wing of the party on oil drilling, because it undermined support for the bill among staunch GOP loyalists.
"The question for the House leadership is: How far do you go in order to get the liberal Republican vote? Obviously, they pushed it too far," said House Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.), who estimated that he and more than 25 other Republicans considered rejecting the budget once the leadership removed provisions to expand oil drilling in the Arctic and offshore. "When they pulled it out, [moderates] still didn't support it. And a bunch of guys elsewhere in the country said, 'Wait a minute. What happened to the energy?' "
House leaders said they could not corral enough votes before rank-and-file members needed to dash home for Veterans Day events. They vowed to try to pass the budget next week, but lawmakers conceded it will not get any easier.
Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee broke up in disarray yesterday morning after failing to secure support for a tax package that would have extended the president's 2003 cut to the tax rates on dividends and capital gains. Joining the panel's Democrats, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) declared she could not support a tax cut that primarily benefited the rich as Congress was trying to cut programs for the poor. But when the panel's chairman, Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), tried to win approval of a tax package without the investment tax cuts, panel conservatives refused to go along.
The cracks were showing in other areas, as well.
In an 82 to 9 vote yesterday, the Senate approved an amendment to the defense authorization bill by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to require Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to disclose to Congress the existence of clandestine terrorism detention facilities in foreign countries. The existence of such facilities was disclosed Nov. 2 by The Washington Post, and the Senate vote suggests Republicans are feeling heat from voters on the way Bush is conducting the war on terrorism.
For the second time, the Senate last week approved a measure ardently opposed by the White House to restrict and codify interrogation methods, this time unanimously. Vice President Cheney's personal overtures to exempt the CIA from the restrictions have had little effect.
"If necessary, there will be a third time and a fourth time and a tenth time, until we win," said the provision's author, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Both chambers of Congress are moving toward limiting some of the far-ranging surveillance and search powers lawmakers granted the administration following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
And the Senate is insisting on a provision in its budget-cutting bill that would eliminate a White House-backed fund to entice managed care companies into the Medicare program. When Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) was asked about a White House veto threat over the measure, he called it "absurd."
Bush's call to make his first-term tax cuts permanent has had so little support that Grassley drafted a bill that would simply extend some of the Bush tax cuts for a single year. Even that may go nowhere.
"It should go away," Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) said of the tax package. "We ought not to be involved in it."
Voinovich said the budget rebellion reflects increasing voter unease about Republican priorities: "There's uncertainty. There's anxiety," he said. "It's the common sense of the American people looking in on us and questioning what we're doing. People say, 'This doesn't make sense to us.' " A crucial test of White House clout will come next week, as the Senate and House attempt to complete the fiscal 2006 Defense Department spending bill. McCain originally attached his amendment on interrogation techniques to the Senate version, and the White House has threatened to veto any bill that contains the provision.
But McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war and a possible 2008 GOP presidential candidate, is couching his effort in moral terms. "A clear and firm commitment on the part of the United States government that we will not only not torture, but we will not treat people in a cruel or inhumane fashion is absolutely vital," McCain said after a speech yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.