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."
The longer Bush has been in office, the greater the tension between the White House and many House conservatives aligned with the Republican Study Committee (RSC). They believe the party has lost its way and point to several of Bush's signature achievements, among them the No Child Left Behind education law and the measure providing prescription drug benefits to Medicare recipients, as inimical to the conservative principle of limited government.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who with Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.) has urged his colleagues to consider major leadership changes next month, said House Republicans approved some of those bills in part to help Bush win reelection in 2004. "That concern no longer exists," Flake said. "The president is no longer running for reelection."
But the divisions the new House leaders must attempt to reconcile are not simply Bush's vs. the House's political interests. The disagreements pit what many Republicans see as the importance of adhering to bedrock conservative principles, particularly on the size and scope of government, against what others say is needed to maintain or expand the party's electoral appeal.
"No policy disagreement more captures that than the disagreement over the prescription drug bill," said David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke University. "A lot in the RSC think it is bad in principle and bad in practice. But others thought it was essential to maintain majority status, which for the other part of the party is the highest thing of value."
There will be competing views of exactly what the House needs at this moment. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, argues for a leader who can develop a close relationship with committee chairmen to ensure a steady flow of legislation to the floor "so that members think they've gotten their work done and the country sees the agenda is getting accomplished."
Cole argued for leadership that eventually can reach across the aisle more successfully than either Gingrich or DeLay to attract Democratic support for legislation, although he said he sees no prospect of that this year.
Shadegg has been critical of what he said is the failure by Blunt or Boehner to be more aggressive in putting forth a plan for a bolder conservative agenda.
Whatever course the new leadership takes could have a significant effect on the party. If the party's new leaders in the House choose the wrong path, they could jeopardize their majority in the coming midterm elections. Others in the party -- the 2008 presidential candidates, governors, senators -- will distance themselves, as Bush did at times when he ran for president in 2000. If House leaders do the opposite, they could reassert themselves at the heart of the conservative movement just as Bush's presidency is nearing its end.
"If they approach this moment of crisis, if you will, as a challenge to reclaim the reform mantle," Weber said, GOP legislators can save themselves and "shape the 2008 presidential campaign, and that's tremendously important."