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GOP Moderates Weigh Loyalty To Bush vs. Political Realities

"I think Republicans in Congress do see this as a time of decision, but it's not whether we'll stand with the president but with the principles that minted the majority in 1994," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), referring to the GOP. "To be candid, Republicans think less in terms of fealty to the president than loyalty to principle."

But for moderates, the coming clashes will be a major test. House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) met with moderate Republicans Monday night to try to soothe their nerves on Iraq, only to hear a chorus of concerns. Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.) let the GOP leadership know that he does not intend to stop his efforts to find a bipartisan way to shift course in Iraq, then left for a Republican-Democratic dinner on the issue, organized by Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.).

Between efforts to push legislation requiring a change of mission in Iraq, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is trying to stave off a veto of the S-CHIP bill; and she is fuming about Bush's newfound zeal for fiscal rectitude. "There is a marked contrast between this year threatening to veto all of these bills and the last few years," she said. "He's clearly trying to send a message. I think it's a belated message, and the choices are not ones I would have advised."

On Iraq, Republicans who once might have yielded to White House appeals for unity are finding such salesmanship far less persuasive.

"My tendency is to try and be supportive of the president," said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who is considering voting for Webb's rest-time amendment, which he opposed in July. "But if I have looked at something and studied it and conclude that that's not the right course, then I'm going to do what I do."

All of this has clearly weighed down the Republican Party. Six House Republicans and two GOP senators -- including independent-minded lawmakers such as Ramstad, Pryce and Rep. Ray LaHood (Ill.), as well as Sens. John W. Warner (Va.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) -- have announced their retirements.

At a gloomy meeting of House Republicans yesterday, lawmakers hashed over the updated list of retirements while leaders again exhorted their rank-and-file to get out and raise money if they do not want to be in an even deeper hole in November 2008.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said a meeting that once would have been depressing has become so commonplace that it is now boring.

"People are taking very seriously the notion that Democrats are far ahead of us in having top-tier candidates for the White House and are well-positioned to defend their own on Capitol Hill," LaHood said. "There are no illusions out here."

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