Grand Old Partypoopers

May 27, 2004

WHAT'S WORSE than not having enough votes to control Congress? Having the votes, but not being able to control those who cast them.

The frustration of a razor-thin, occasionally obstreperous majority is being blamed for House Speaker Dennis Hastert's ill-considered broadside against Sen. John McCain, suggesting the downed Navy flier tortured for years in a Vietnamese prison doesn't understand the sacrifices of war.

Mr. McCain is part of a small but hardy maverick band of Republicans blocking approval of a budget plan they consider ruinous: another round of spending boosts twinned with tax cuts to ensure that money coming in falls far short of what goes out.

Most immediately, the McCain gang is blocking the renewal of three middle-class tax cuts set to expire at the end of this year, which could mean higher taxes in 2005 for families with children.

From a longer view, this insurrection could prove a harbinger of greater factionalism within the GOP, and perhaps a renaissance for the party's moderate wing. Internal party disagreements have also hobbled the energy bill, stalled approval of new highway money and exposed grave concerns about the course of the war in Iraq. No wonder Mr. Hastert has become so testy.

An alternative exists, though, to the sharp-tongued, insult-flinging, my-way-or-the-highway leadership style of Mr. Hastert and his mentor, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. They could employ a rusty old tactic called compromise.

In the budget dispute, for example, Senators McCain, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins of Maine, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island are demanding a return to the fiscal discipline once touted by the GOP.

With the annual deficit at record highs, the four want to reinstate rules that require any new spending or loss of revenue from tax cuts to be offset so the budget won't drop deeper in the red. So far, GOP leaders have offered pay-as-you-go rules that cover just one year and don't apply to tax cuts - an empty gesture.

Thanks to a GOP-tilted redistricting plan Mr. DeLay helped muscle through the Texas legislature, Republicans are confident they have enough safe seats to ensure that their hold on the House won't be broken this year. But there is little prospect they'll gain enough ground in the Senate to assemble a filibuster-proof majority, or to shrink the maneuvering room of mavericks.

And party fissures are becoming more evident on social, environmental and privacy issues, as well as the war. Extreme policies imposed with a crack of the whip are taking their toll on GOP unity.

If the result is more moderates, malcontents and McCains, the party and the nation will be better for it.


An editorial Sunday gave an incorrect first name for James Dunkes, a Baltimore County man who was arrested in 1995 on a series of minor charges and remains in a state mental hospital though the charges against him were dropped six years ago. The Sun regrets the error.

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