House GOP moderates hoping to flex muscle

January 17, 1995|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- A small band of Republican moderates, seemingly out of step with the conservative-dominated House, has political weight beyond its numbers and has begun to throw it around.

The moderate contingent has challenged the leadership on a pivotal element of the proposed balanced-budget amendment, a centerpiece of the Republicans' "Contract with America," the document that undergirded the sweeping Republican congressional victories last fall.

In addition, their public doubts about a leadership plan to cut off welfare benefits for legal immigrants appear to have nudged the new House speaker, Newt Gingrich, to voice second thoughts that have put him at odds with his key lieutenants.

Down the line, the Republican moderates -- including Maryland Reps. Constance A. Morella and Wayne T. Gilchrest and the somewhat more conservative Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- could play key roles in fashioning legislation involving environmental protection, civil rights, gay rights, gun control and abortion.

It comes down to numbers. Republicans hold a 25-vote majority in the House. Depending on the issue, the centrist contingent ranges in size from one dozen to four dozen. That means, their spokesmen say, that they cannot be ignored.

"Republican moderates hold the balance of power in this Congress," said Rep. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, one of the leaders of a GOP group that meets every Tuesday over lunch to plot its strategic insurrections over pizza and Cokes.

"If we all stick together and vote the party line, we can do anything we want," he said. "If there are excesses -- and we side with the Democrats -- we can block anything. . . . The record of this Congress is going to be a lot more centrist than many people expect."

Extent of power

It isn't comfortable, though, for any Republican to challenge a party position at a time when the GOP is still emotionally high on its election victory and eager to make its mark. There has already been some grumbling from the right. Whether the moderates will be able to shape legislation, or simply to lessen its impact, remains to be seen.

"At this point, when they're in power for the first time in 40 years, the leaders' appeal to stay together is very seductive," said Leslie Harris, chief lobbyist for People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group that promotes civil liberties. "The moderates have the votes to make a difference; the question is whether they have the will to do it. We haven't seen a lot of that yet."

So far, Mr. Gingrich has been able to keep the squabbling within the party. His tactic has been to yield to the moderates on some occasions, demand strict loyalty on others, and negotiate only -- when forced.

"When you have 230 members, every member's pretty darn important," the speaker acknowledged in an interview last week. "When you've got a 13-vote [effective] majority [over Democrats], you love all of them.

"What I'm not going to do in the short run is negotiate," Mr. Gingrich said. Even if there are "20 hard moderates . . . by that I mean people who'd be willing to take us on," Mr. Gingrich said, he will first look for enough conservative Democrats to make up the difference.

"If you can't write a bill that forces 20 Democrats to vote for you, then you're not being very serious about what you're doing," he added.

Even so, Mr. Gingrich seems determined to keep from pressuring the moderates to the point that they feel more at home with the Democrats.

"The leverage the moderates have is key, and it will grow because the votes will get tougher," said Kenneth Duberstein, a Republican lobbyist who served as a chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan. "Newt is very mindful of that."

The speaker won't give up the fight to include in the balanced-budget amendment a provision opposed by moderates requiring a three-fifths vote by each house of Congress to raise taxes, even though Republican leaders acknowledge that provision can't pass in the Senate. Mr. Gingrich hopes to blame the Democrats for defeating the tax clause.

"I think anytime we can get a debate on television where there's a Republican saying this is a good idea, and there's a Democrat explaining why it's bad to make it hard to raise taxes . . . it's the equivalent of paid commercials," the speaker said.

Concession to moderates

But in order to ensure that a balanced-budget amendment passes the House, Mr. Gingrich has promised to give the Republican moderates the chance to vote for a second version of the amendment without the tax provision. That version is considered to have the best chance of passing the Senate.

"That's what we all want -- to succeed," said Rep. Fred Upton of Minnesota, another leader of the "Tuesday Lunch Bunch."

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