Long ignored when their party was in control, moderate Republicans are the new power brokers in an increasingly bitter series of veto confrontations between President Bush and the Democratic Congress.
In late-night meetings this week, senior Democrats met with centrist Republicans, trying to get a veto-proof majority for a child-health-insurance initiative opposed by the president. Moderates also played a part in yesterday's 79-14 Senate roll call overriding Bush's veto of a water-resources bill, and their support will decide the future of a $151 billion education, labor and health-care budget headed to the White House last night.
The new dynamic reflects not just the Democratic takeover of Congress but how Bush has responded to it. In 1994, after Republicans took over, President Clinton saw a new middle ground defined by the election and moved away from fellow liberals in Congress. Bush has done the opposite, moving to the right to shore up his conservative base and leaving an opening in the center.
The White House's more-confrontational tactics are a strategy calculated to disrupt the new majority and reduce the effectiveness of Congress to challenge Bush on the war in Iraq. The result has been a convergence of veto threats over spending levels and domestic policy, leaving little time for the two sides to reach deals.
Most of the government remains dependent on a stopgap spending bill that lawmakers will extend until at least mid-December. The education budget, which will likely be vetoed, is just the first of the annual domestic appropriations bills to clear Congress. And even as Congress moved last night toward approval of a $471 billion budget for the Pentagon, a new House fight was erupting over funding for military operations in Iraq.
Democrats have contributed to the delays by their difficulties with how to package the spending bills. "Their strategy changes by the hour," White House Budget Director Jim Nussle said in an interview. "I get different answers from every one of them."
Unaccustomed to the spotlight, some moderates find themselves in an uncomfortable role somewhere between being tied to the railroad tracks as the Democrats and White House come barreling down and being the switchman who can save the train. "All of a sudden, moderates are getting noticed," Rep. Jim Ramstad (R., Minn.), who plans to retire next year, said with a laugh.
Thursday's Senate vote on the water-resources veto was the first time Bush has been overridden. The more-telling test will come on the child-health-insurance and education bills now in play.
The health-care bill calls for an additional $35 billion in spending over the next five years to expand coverage for the children of working-class families. To win over moderates, Democrats are prepared to add tighter income limits and push more parents off the rolls. There has been a backlash from New Jersey and Rhode Island senators worried about the impact on their states, and participants were hesitant to claim victory yesterday.
"There's a decent chance of a deal," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D., Mont..
"I'm seeing the potential for some successes," said Rep. Joseph Knollenberg, R., Mich.
As talks continue, a synergy has developed between the fate of the child-health bill and the $151 billion budget for education, labor and medical research. At different times this year, as many as 60 Republicans have voted for that measure, known as the "Labor H" budget, and the Republican leadership had to strain this week to hold its forces in line.
"I'm getting a lot of heat at home because of my [health-care] vote," said Rep. Steven LaTourette, R., Ohio. "I have to make it right on Labor H."
In crafting the package, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D., Wis., has moved to the right to win over Republicans. Spending has been cut by about $1 billion below the level approved by the House in July, and anti-abortion language has been preserved for conservatives.
Rep. Jim Walsh, R., N.Y., said he will vote with Obey. Careful not to offend Republican leaders, he noted that he wasn't promoting the bill, but he pulled from his jacket pocket his list of talking points for fellow Republicans of what Obey did to get their votes. "All things that are critically important to my conference," Walsh said. "He did it anticipating that he could conceivably get an override."
Republican moderates emerge in Congress