GOP Moderates Weigh Loyalty To Bush vs. Political Realities

By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

With a difficult war debate looming and presidential vetoes for a host of popular legislation threatened, moderate Republicans in Congress are facing a tough choice: Stand by President Bush or run for their political lives.

Votes are due soon on Iraq, an expansion of a children's health insurance program and an array of spending bills. GOP leaders hope to use them to regain credibility with their base voters as a party for strong defense and fiscal discipline. But moderates, many of them facing the possibility of difficult reelection bids next year, are dreading the expected showdowns.

"We are at a very significant juncture," said Rep. Jim Ramstad (Minn.), a moderate who on Monday joined seven other Republicans in announcing that he will not seek reelection. "I'd use a metaphor, but it can't be printed -- something about something hitting the fan."

"Obviously, it's perilous," said Charles Bass (N.H.), who was swept from Congress last year in the Democratic wave and now heads the Republican Main Street Partnership, a moderate group.

This week and next, Senate Republicans will face crucial votes on measures to shift course in Iraq, probably beginning with a proposal by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) that would require home stays for troops that are at least as long as their most recent combat tours before they can be redeployed to the war zones.

House and Senate negotiators are closing in on a major expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program that would largely mirror a $35 billion Senate version and be stripped of the House's controversial plan to trim back subsidies for private Medicare managed-care plans. The bill already has veto-proof support in the Senate, and opposition may be crumbling in the House.

"Most of the moderates will vote for S-CHIP if the Medicare piece is taken out," said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio).

Over White House opposition, the House voted 348 to 72 yesterday to expand federal backing of mortgages, the first legislative response to the brewing housing crisis.

And the president has promised to veto nearly every one of the 12 appropriations bills in the works over $22 billion that Democrats are adding to Bush's request of nearly $1 trillion. While Republicans emphasize the total of increased spending, Democrats are hammering the GOP on the specifics: $3 billion for border security, $1.2 billion for emergency preparedness, $1 billion for bridge repair, $700 million to house low-income seniors and $75 million for homeless veterans.

To be sure, Bush could find Republican support holding up if Democratic leaders are unable or unwilling to moderate their positions on Iraq or come to timely agreements on S-CHIP and the spending bills. Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), who has been exploring bipartisan accommodations, especially on Iraq, complained yesterday that, for all their talk of bipartisanship, the "House Democratic leadership has not reached out to us at all."

And Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that he is abandoning efforts at compromise with Republicans over proposals to bring troops home, saying that the GOP has not responded to his plea.

For many Republicans, especially conservatives, the coming showdowns are the fights they have been waiting for. But even they are reluctant to say they are standing with the president, who has low approval ratings, especially over his handling of the Iraq war.

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