By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007
House Republican leaders, who confidently predicted they would drive a wedge through the new Democratic majority, have found their own party splintering, with Republican lawmakers siding with Democrats in droves on the House's opening legislative blitz.
Freed from the pressures of being the majority and from the heavy hand of former leaders including retired representative Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), many back-bench Republicans are showing themselves to be more moderate than their conservative leadership and increasingly mindful of shifting voter sentiment. The closest vote last week -- Friday's push to require the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare -- pulled 24 Republicans. The Democrats' homeland security bill attracted 68 Republicans, the minimum wage increase 82.
"You're freer to vote your conscience," said Rep. Jo Anne Emerson (R-Mo.), who received an 88 percent voting record from the American Conservative Union in 2005 but has so far sided with Democrats on new budget rules, Medicare prescription-drug negotiations, raising the minimum wage and funding stem cell research. "Or, really, I feel free to represent my constituents exactly as they want me to be."
"Times have changed. I don't want to be someone who they say is too stubborn to change too," said Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.), whose 92 percent conservative rating did not stop him from voting with Democrats on the homeland security and minimum-wage bills.
After their stinging defeat in November, Republican leaders in the House had gamely promised to draft procedural motions and parliamentary gambits that they said would split the new majority. With so many new Democrats hailing from moderate-to-conservative districts, even some Democrats saw the pledge as plausible.
In theory, Republicans have made good on their promises. Republicans argued vociferously against Democratic measures over the past two weeks, saying new deficit-control rules would guarantee tax increases, stringent homeland security measures would cripple commerce, and a minimum-wage increase would hurt the economy.
To counter the prescription-drug bill, GOP leaders drafted a parliamentary move that they said would ensure senior citizens' access to local pharmacists and the full panoply of prescription drugs. They tried to beat back the stem cell bill with a popular alternative, a ban on federal funds for human cloning. And they countered the minimum-wage bill with a motion to send it back to be redrafted to include tax breaks and health-insurance benefits for small businesses. On the minimum-wage bill, Republican leadership aides even offered a list of 25 Democrats they could pull over to their side.
The results? Eighty-two Republicans joined a unanimous Democratic front to vote to increase the minimum wage, while 54 Republicans voted against their leadership's counteroffer. Eighteen Republicans defied their leadership by opposing the parliamentary move against stem cells.
The homeland security bill -- designed to implement most of the remaining recommendations of the commission that examined the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- even garnered the vote of Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee last year, thwarted one of its central provisions, the screening of all shipping containers heading to U.S. ports.
Some Republicans, such as Reps. Todd R. Platts (Pa.) and Jim Ramstad (Minn.), sided with the Democrats on every major vote. But it was not just closet mavericks.
Last year, Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio) was a powerful member of the Republican leadership, responsible for uniting her fractious colleagues behind a single message. After narrowly escaping defeat in November, the swing-district Republican bolted from her party's leadership last year. Last week, she virtually bolted from the party.
With just one exception, Pryce sided with the new Democratic majority on every major bill and rule change that came to a vote in the past two weeks, even voting against her party on a procedural vote, a move considered heretical in the years of GOP control.
The Democrats "deserve the same credit that we got in 1995," when Republicans took control, said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "They've picked up on the really big issues of the day, the ones they won the election on, and the ones that really resonate in Republican districts."
Democratic leaders say even they have been surprised by their margins of victory, but they were always counting on GOP votes. Republicans from swing districts who have been beat up for years over their party-line voting have been liberated by their minority status, said Rep. John B. Larson (Conn.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
"They've really been the ones that have been oppressed," he said.
GOP leaders were quick to dismiss the significance of the Democratic winning streak, however. For one thing, the Democrats' opening legislative blitz is being conducted under parliamentary rules that run roughshod over the Republicans, foreclosing any chance to actually amend the bills. But Democratic leaders have promised to give the GOP more latitude once the so-called 100-hours agenda runs its course next week.
For another, the Democrats will soon exhaust their carefully constructed opening list of bills that were designed to appeal across party lines.
"Republican discipline was critically important when we were passing legislation and moving an agenda," House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said. "The Democrats will soon move from these issues that poll at 80, 90 percent to issues that really matter."