Moderates grow in influence

Pressure on GOP makes center crucial


WASHINGTON -- In the wee hours of Friday morning -- a few minutes into a close vote on a critical bill on the House floor -- Maryland Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest decided to play a little joke on Republican Party leaders.

Earlier, he had assured them that he would support a $50 billion package of spending cuts. But when he strode onto the House floor, he cast his vote against it. Party leaders, who had carefully counted their votes before bringing the bill to the floor, gaped at Gilchrest.

Nobody was amused.

Gilchrest quickly switched his vote to yes, and less than 15 minutes later, Republicans secured a key victory, squeaking through with a two-vote margin for passage. Fourteen Republicans had joined every Democrat in opposing the bill, but the leaders were able to coax enough moderates -- many of whom, like Gilchrest, still weren't thrilled with the legislation -- to win.

Moderate Republicans are enjoying a powerful renaissance these days, as their votes have become crucial currency for House and Senate leaders to move the Republican agenda. With President Bush's popularity waning and energized Democrats holding together on critical votes, Republican leaders are reluctantly recognizing the center -- and with the 2006 elections coming up, the odds are that lawmakers in the middle of the road will continue to be the key constituency.

"These people are in a more influential position in the Republican Party in the House than they've been in a long time," said Randall W. Strahan, a political scientist at Emory University who studies Congress.

The prolonged effort to pass the spending cuts is the best example. After budget hawks within the party pushed for deeper cuts, Republican moderates rebelled for a long list of reasons, including the oil-drilling provisions in the bill and complaints that the legislation struck too hard at programs such as student loans and Medicaid.

Even after the drilling language, which covered Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and an area off the coast of Florida, was removed, Republican leaders weren't sure they had the votes. It took another week of negotiations and concessions to win the support of moderates such as Gilchrest and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York.

That support, however, came with a caveat: If the bill changes for the worse in negotiations with the Senate, they said, the courtship would have to start all over again.

Boehlert said moderates were just where they wanted to be.

"It is right that we were at the center of the process, because we're at the center of gravity," he said, adding that he thought that also put the moderates squarely in step with most American voters.

There are 231 Republicans in the House, compared with 202 Democrats and one independent who usually votes with them. In the Senate, the Republicans hold 55 seats and the Democrats 44, with one independent.

Because of the diversity of moderates' opinions, their numbers are hard to pin down. But on the drilling issue -- what Gilchrest called the thread that held moderates together -- more than two dozen House Republicans signed a letter opposing it.

The deficit-reduction bill was not the only front on which Republicans in the House and Senate have been fighting. Just hours before that bill passed, some of the moderates involved in the fight over cuts teamed with Democrats to torpedo a $600 billion spending bill for education and health programs.

Friday afternoon, House leaders postponed a vote on a companion $57 billion package of tax cuts, because some moderates had questions and because others were uneasy about voting on the legislation so soon after approving spending cuts.

The Senate's version of legislation extending a string of tax cuts was modified after strident opposition from Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and other Republicans. Questions about the status of the war in Iraq have morphed from quiet grumbling into loud public concerns heard on the House and Senate floors last week.

Senate moderates, including Snowe, Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine and Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, are considered key to the fate of Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., whose confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin in early January.

Gilchrest, a former teacher, attributed the rising power of moderates to the changing tide of public opinion.

"I think people are very concerned about the war in Iraq, bird flu, the economy," he said. "I think the mood of the country is very unsettled."

He said that during recent town hall meetings in his district, which covers the Eastern Shore, constituents have asked questions about the war, the treatment of international detainees and fiscal policy.

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