November 20, 2005

Collapse of the Republicans' once lock-step discipline on Capitol Hill may prove a mixed blessing.

Certainly, there have been heartening moments, such as when House GOP moderates stood firm and forced their leaders to scrap approval for drilling in Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge and to restore a few billion dollars in planned trims from social programs such as food stamps.

Maine Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe's move to derail a premature extension of the tax break on capital gains at a time of such belt-tightening injected a rare measure of common sense into the GOP leadership's unabashedly cynical agenda of taking from the poor while protecting the rich.

Yet it was obvious last week, from the House Republicans' surprise rejection Thursday of a $142 billion health and education spending bill before voting overnight to approve a five-year package of cuts, that not even the moderates are in charge.

With President Bush and Republican congressional leaders weakened by a combination of missteps on Iraq, corruption probes and lame-duck status, GOP lawmakers in both chambers are operating on the principle of every lawmaker for himself. Democrats are mostly standing back hoping to see the GOP majority crash and burn.

Collateral damage will surely be inflicted by such chaos, almost certainly on the orderly process of government and the people who depend on it. Warring factions should resolve their differences in a way that best serves the country at large while resisting the impulse to secure agreement at the usual price of special interests payoffs all around.

Reducing the record budget deficit - the stated purpose of the $50 billion, five-year package passed in the House early Friday morning - is a laudable goal. But the House measure took a blunt instrument to programs that directly affect people, such as indexing Medicaid co-payments to rise with inflation, while providing new benefits to favored industries, including opening millions of acres of public lands to mining.

Some elements of the $60 billion tax-cut package approved by the Senate early Friday can be defended - such as protecting middle-class taxpayers from unintended increases through the alternative minimum tax.

There's no denying, though, that the GOP plan for reducing the deficit and financing Katrina relief takes not from the richest Americans, but from the neediest.

When Congress returns after Thanksgiving, negotiators will seek to resolve differences over the budget and tax bills, as well as the health and education spending measure.

If somehow the moderates in both chambers can tighten their grasp on the process and produce a reasonable compromise, the nation may have something to be thankful for.

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