GOP Leadership Race Seen as Harbinger

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

The leadership contest playing out this month in the House of Representatives represents more than a battle of personalities. At stake is the direction of a Republican Party that, by some lights, is facing the most serious confluence of problems in the decade since it roared to power on Capitol Hill.

In both good ways and bad, House Republicans have helped define present-day conservatism. The House in the late 1980s and 1990s was the incubator for many of the policy ideas and political strategies that produced the current era of GOP dominance.

The House is also home to a brand of confrontational politics that has played a large role in souring the Washington environment. And the transactional style favored by many House GOP leaders -- in which the trade of special-interest support in exchange for access to power became more open than ever -- contributed to the downfall of former House majority leader Tom DeLay, setting off the current race to replace him.

"I do think we're at a critical, pivotal moment for the Republican Party right now," said Vin Weber, a former Republican representative from Minnesota. "The problem we're facing today is that that hard-work effort to define a reform conservative agenda has taken a back seat to simply political, tactical efforts to retain power."

In Weber's analogy, the House Republicans represented the central nervous system of a party moving from minority to majority status. Their current problems come at a time when the GOP is besieged on many fronts. President Bush, despite recent improvements, continues to receive less than majority support in his approval ratings and, as a second-term president waging an unpopular war, is increasingly in a weaker position to advance bold new ideas. Nor has a clear agenda emerged from Republicans in Congress, where the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal threatens additional embarrassments or worse for an unknown number of lawmakers.

Few see Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) as the person to provide that vision for the House Republicans, given the workaday, low-key style that has defined his leadership since he replaced Newt Gingrich in 1999. It is also not clear who among the current candidates to replace DeLay -- House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) -- or among other prospective leaders may have what it takes.

What a number of Republicans fear is that the new leaders may define their roles in the most narrow and limited way -- passing minimal lobbying reforms, lubricating the gears inside the House, keeping their colleagues happy and enacting as much of Bush's agenda as possible but not much more. Gingrich has been outspoken in his warnings that, unless the House Republicans embrace a much broader reform agenda that goes well beyond the interaction between lobbyists and lawmakers, the party could suffer in the 2006 elections and beyond.

Over the past decade, House Republicans have been guided by the vision of three leaders: Bush, DeLay and Gingrich. Bush has played the dominant role in the past five years in defining his party and setting the agenda for Congress -- sometimes to the disgruntlement of conservatives in the House. But the contributions of both Gingrich and DeLay, however contentious they sometimes were, cannot be underestimated. The question facing House Republicans now is who among them has the same capacity, absent some of the baggage, of a Gingrich or a DeLay.

Their approaches were far different, and each, at least for a time, proved successful. Gingrich was all about taking power for the GOP; DeLay, about single-mindedly cementing that power in place. Ultimately, each ran aground. When Gingrich faltered, Bush was there to provide Republicans with an alternative vision. What replaces DeLay's approach is unclear. Bush remains part of the answer, but as his power over other Republicans begins to ebb, what happens in the House will influence, for good or ill, the party's fortunes.

"If you ask most Americans who represents the [Republican] Party, they're going to say George Bush, not any of the leaders of Congress," said John J. Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College. "Nevertheless, the congressional Republicans are already looking at the day when President Bush leaves office and they're still around. So they're looking for their own distinctive identity."

Proud of their role in powering the GOP ascendancy of the past generation, House Republicans jealously guard their prerogatives in helping to set the party's future.

"Remember, this Republican majority was not created by presidential victory," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). "It was not sustained by presidential victory. It grew for six years without presidential victory. We have a different kind of a Republican majority than they [Democrats] did with FDR, and if we have our way, it will outlast the Bush administration."

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