2005 Vote Ratings - Down The Middle

Feb. 25, 2006, 7 a.m.

By Richard E. Co­hen

Last year was a spe­cial time for vet­er­an Rep. Sher­wood Boehlert, a Re­pub­lic­an from up­state New York. “It was the mod­er­ates’ mo­ment,” Boehlert re­flec­ted in an in­ter­view look­ing back on 2005. He was re­fer­ring to how a group of 15 to 20 cent­rist House Re­pub­lic­ans, mostly from the North­east and Mid­w­est, had lever­aged their in­de­pend­ence to shape the out­come on hot le­gis­lat­ive top­ics that in­cluded fed­er­al budget belt-tight­en­ing, oil drilling in Alaska, and fund­ing for stem-cell re­search.

Boehlert re­coun­ted the gruel­ing battle over the budget re­con­cili­ation bill, which the House first passed 217-215 on Novem­ber 18 at about 1:30 a.m. Right up un­til they cast their votes, he and Rep. Mi­chael Castle, R-Del., with­held their sup­port and con­tin­ued ex­ten­ded ne­go­ti­ations with Speak­er Den­nis Hastert, R-Ill., and Ma­jor­ity Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo. “We upped our re­quests — al­most to de­mands — on sev­er­al is­sues, in­clud­ing spend­ing for [low-in­come home-heat­ing as­sist­ance], food stamps, and milk sup­port,” Boehlert re­called. “Fi­nally, we got com­mit­ments from the speak­er, whose words were bank­able.”

Cap­it­ol Hill is in the blood of the savvy Boehlert, 69, who began work­ing as a House staffer in 1964 and, ex­cept for a brief peri­od, has re­mained there ever since. He was first elec­ted to the House in 1982, and for the past five years has chaired the Sci­ence Com­mit­tee. Even Boehlert doesn’t know wheth­er the budget bill would have passed without his and Castle’s votes, but em­battled GOP lead­ers evid­ently were un­will­ing to risk it. “The big dif­fer­ence last year,” Castle said in a sep­ar­ate in­ter­view, “was that the lead­er­ship be­came more will­ing to listen to us and to make con­ces­sions than they were in the past.”

In both the House and the Sen­ate last year, Re­pub­lic­an cent­rists found them­selves ex­er­cising new­found in­flu­ence and cre­at­ing plenty of head­aches for Pres­id­ent Bush and GOP lead­ers. The Re­pub­lic­an cent­rists were bolder — and more ef­fect­ive — than per­haps at any oth­er time since their party’s takeover of Cap­it­ol Hill in 1994.

As part of budget re­con­cili­ation, Re­pub­lic­an cent­rists were able to ease the pro­posed en­ti­tle­ment cuts, such as to Medi­caid, and they forced Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers to drop a pro­vi­sion au­thor­iz­ing oil drilling in Alaska’s Arc­tic Na­tion­al Wild­life Refuge. The op­pos­i­tion of mod­er­ate Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, forced Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans to scale back their tax-cut re­con­cili­ation meas­ure by elim­in­at­ing ex­ten­sions of the cap­it­al-gains and di­vidends tax breaks. And sev­en cent­rist Re­pub­lic­ans were among the Sen­ate’s “Gang of 14” that forged an 11th-hour com­prom­ise that tor­pedoed plans by Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to ban fili­busters against ju­di­cial nom­in­a­tions, al­though their deal did clear the way for the ap­prov­al of sev­er­al of Bush’s stalled nom­in­ees.

Just be­fore Christ­mas, four in­de­pend­ent GOP sen­at­ors un­ex­pec­tedly scuttled a con­fer­ence agree­ment on le­gis­la­tion reau­thor­iz­ing the USA PAT­RI­OT Act. “We showed that we were will­ing to take a stand and ad­voc­ate,” said Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., a lead­er of that group. The four­some — which also in­cluded Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — fi­nally reached a deal with the White House on Feb­ru­ary 9.

The re­venge of the Re­pub­lic­an mod­er­ates hardly seemed to be in the cards as le­gis­lat­ive in­siders planned the 109th Con­gress in Janu­ary 2005. Bush and GOP lead­ers were full of swag­ger after their Novem­ber 2004 elect­or­al vic­tor­ies, and they placed So­cial Se­cur­ity re­form atop a bold second-term agenda. The Re­pub­lic­an pickup of four seats in the Sen­ate and three in the House seemed to strengthen con­ser­vat­ives, not least be­cause those gains came mostly in the South.

One might have ex­pec­ted GOP mod­er­ates to cave to pres­sure from their lead­ers to vote the party line. But as 2005 played out, Re­pub­lic­ans watched their poll num­bers nose­dive, thanks to their party’s hand­ling of the Ir­aq war, Hur­ricane Kat­rina, gas prices, So­cial Se­cur­ity, and oth­er do­mest­ic is­sues — on top of the in­dict­ments and crim­in­al in­vest­ig­a­tions fa­cing Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and sev­er­al oth­er GOP law­makers and Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials. And in the Novem­ber 2005 elec­tion, Demo­crats won gubernat­ori­al races in Vir­gin­ia and New Jer­sey. Amid all of these troubles, the Re­pub­lic­an cent­rists be­came more em­boldened to push back.

At the same time, weakened Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers, par­tic­u­larly those in the House, could no longer count on con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats — whose num­bers had dwindled in re­cent elec­tions — to sup­ply the votes to pass con­tro­ver­sial GOP le­gis­la­tion. As par­tis­an ac­ri­mony in­creased in 2005, House Demo­crats fre­quently voted in a bloc, united against the Re­pub­lic­an agenda. And this unity made the votes of GOP mod­er­ates all the more crit­ic­al.

“We were em­powered by the Demo­crats’ de­cision to march in lock­step on many is­sues,” Boehlert said. “The Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship was faced with the ne­ces­sity to get a ma­jor­ity of the House from with­in the ma­jor­ity party. That was im­possible to do without the mod­er­ates.”

Con­ser­vat­ives re­spon­ded to their party’s mount­ing woes last year by de­mand­ing a shift to the right and a re­turn to bed­rock con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples. Yet nervous mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans from swing states and dis­tricts in­creas­ingly felt they needed to look after their own polit­ic­al in­terests and con­stitu­en­cies. “In the past year, we saw a grow­ing or­gan­iz­a­tion of Re­pub­lic­an cent­rists,” said Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who co-chairs the Tues­day Group, a core or­gan­iz­a­tion of House GOP mod­er­ates. “Where we felt strongly, we def­in­itely got what we wanted.”

But it wasn’t only the tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an mod­er­ates from the North­east and Mid­w­est who flexed their muscles in 2005. Na­tion­al Journ­al’s an­nu­al vote rat­ings show that small bands of con­ser­vat­ive mav­er­icks were also mov­ing to­ward the cen­ter of the House and the Sen­ate.

Among those GOP reneg­ades were Sununu and Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C., and Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ar­iz., and Wal­ter Jones, R-N.C. By go­ing their own way on gov­ern­ment spend­ing, civil liber­ties, en­ergy policy, the war in Ir­aq, and oth­er is­sues, these self-styled liber­tari­ans oc­ca­sion­ally found them­selves in un­ex­pec­ted al­li­ances with more-con­ven­tion­al GOP mod­er­ates — such as Snowe or Rep. Chris­toph­er Shays, R-Conn. — and in op­pos­i­tion to their party’s stand­ard-bear­ers.

“I don’t worry about the im­plic­a­tions of vot­ing with or against some­body on an is­sue,” said Sununu, who calls him­self “a lim­ited-gov­ern­ment Re­pub­lic­an.”

Flake, for his part, is a staunch con­ser­vat­ive and a prom­in­ent mem­ber of the House Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee. Back in 2003, he was one of 25 House Re­pub­lic­ans who voted against the Medi­care pre­scrip­tion drug be­ne­fits bill, a sig­na­ture do­mest­ic vic­tory of Bush’s. In NJ’s 2005 vote rat­ings, Flake is at the dead cen­ter of the House, with a com­pos­ite con­ser­vat­ive score of 50. (See table, next page.)

Asked about that rat­ing, Flake said that the defin­i­tion of “con­ser­vat­ive” be­came “a proxy for how you voted with the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Those who stick with the lead­er­ship would go down with the ship, no mat­ter what.” But he ad­ded with a laugh: “If there were 30 Jeff Flakes in the House, it prob­ably would be un­gov­ern­able.”

Since 1981, NJ’s an­nu­al vote rat­ings have defined where mem­bers of Con­gress have stood ideo­lo­gic­ally in each cham­ber. The rat­ings rank law­makers on how they vote re­l­at­ive to each oth­er on a con­ser­vat­ive-to-lib­er­al scale in both the Sen­ate and the House. The scores are based on the mem­bers’ votes in three areas: eco­nom­ic is­sues, so­cial is­sues, and for­eign policy. A com­puter-as­sisted cal­cu­la­tion ranks mem­bers from one end of the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum to the oth­er based on key votes — 70 in the Sen­ate last year, and 107 in the House — se­lec­ted by NJ re­port­ers and ed­it­ors.

For ex­ample, the res­ults show that on for­eign is­sues, Sununu had a lib­er­al score of 51 and a con­ser­vat­ive score of 46. That means he was more lib­er­al than 51 per­cent of oth­er sen­at­ors, more con­ser­vat­ive than 46 per­cent, and tied with the rest. The scores do not mean that Sununu voted with lib­er­als 51 per­cent of the time, or that he was 51 per­cent “cor­rect” from a lib­er­al per­spect­ive. (For more de­tails on how the rat­ings are cal­cu­lated, see pp. 46-47.)

As the 2005 rat­ings demon­strate, the di­versity among the cent­rists some­times raises defin­i­tion­al chal­lenges. Take, for ex­ample, the two House Re­pub­lic­ans from Mary­land: Reps. Ro­s­coe Bart­lett and Wayne Gil­chrest. They ranked near each oth­er and close to the cen­ter of the House: Bart­lett’s com­pos­ite con­ser­vat­ive score was 53, and Gil­chrest’s was 51. But a closer look at the is­sues on which they di­verged from con­ven­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive dogma shows why Gil­chrest is a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of the mod­er­ate Tues­day Group, while Bart­lett is a com­fort­able fit with the con­ser­vat­ive mav­er­icks.

Both par­ted com­pany with GOP reg­u­lars on House votes deal­ing with drilling for Alaska oil and for nat­ur­al gas along the Out­er Con­tin­ent­al Shelf, high­er auto­mobile fuel-ef­fi­ciency stand­ards, and the use of med­ic­al marijuana. Gil­chrest, however, took the “lib­er­al” view on such is­sues as stem-cell re­search, par­ent­al no­ti­fic­a­tion for abor­tions, the dis­play of the Ten Com­mand­ments at a loc­al court­house, and cuts in edu­ca­tion and health care spend­ing. Bart­lett went his own way on asylum for refugees, im­mig­ra­tion re­form, trade with China, and PAT­RI­OT Act re­new­al.

The Road Ahead

The re­viv­al of the Re­pub­lic­an cent­rists has sig­ni­fic­ant im­plic­a­tions that ex­tend well bey­ond cur­rent le­gis­la­tion. Go­ing for­ward, cent­rists may con­tin­ue to cause em­bar­rass­ing and even de­bil­it­at­ing set­backs for GOP lead­ers try­ing to uni­fy their ranks be­hind a le­gis­lat­ive agenda — and a polit­ic­al mes­sage — in the run-up to the Novem­ber elec­tion.

In the Sen­ate, there’s little reas­on to be­lieve that in­de­pend­ent-minded mem­bers will make things much easi­er for Frist this year. Sev­er­al GOP cent­rists — Sens. Lin­coln Chafee, R-R.I., and Mike DeW­ine, R-Ohio — face tough re-elec­tion fights in Novem­ber, while a few oth­ers — Hagel and Sen. John Mc­Cain, R-Ar­iz. — are among the nu­mer­ous sen­at­ors mulling pres­id­en­tial bids in 2008.

When a party has a nar­row Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, as Re­pub­lic­ans do now with their 55-44-1 edge, mod­er­ates will al­ways en­joy con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence. The cham­ber’s free­wheel­ing rules al­low in­di­vidu­al sen­at­ors to press their prerog­at­ives, but re­quire lead­ers to at­tain 60 votes to break fili­busters to pass con­tro­ver­sial le­gis­la­tion.

Un­til 2005, House Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers had been far more ef­fect­ive in us­ing their cham­ber’s stricter rules to help main­tain party dis­cip­line. Now the dis­cip­lin­ari­an-in-chief, DeLay, is out as ma­jor­ity lead­er, leav­ing Hastert and new Ma­jor­ity Lead­er John Boehner, R-Ohio, in charge of this year’s team. How GOP mod­er­ates will re­spond is an open ques­tion.

In the con­test to re­place DeLay this month, a ma­jor­ity of the most act­ive Tues­day Group mem­bers had sup­por­ted Blunt, not Boehner. But Kirk, the group’s co-chair­man, who backed Blunt, said he is not wor­ried. Like Hastert and Blunt, Boehner is a Mid­west­ern­er “who sees a set of prob­lems to be ad­dressed,” Kirk said.

Castle, an early Boehner sup­port­er, said he ex­pects the lead­er­ship team to con­tin­ue to ac­com­mod­ate “a looser en­vir­on­ment” in what some have called the “post-DeLay House.” That change in­cludes al­low­ing more op­por­tun­it­ies for Re­pub­lic­ans to reach across the par­tis­an aisle and for Demo­crats to of­fer amend­ments dur­ing House de­bate. “John is more open-minded on vir­tu­ally everything,” Castle said.

Like­wise, Flake said he backed Boehner be­cause he is “much more in­clus­ive.” He ad­ded, “We all re­cog­nize that there has been too much con­trol in the lead­er­ship; mem­bers have been frus­trated that so much has been done be­hind closed doors.”

Look­ing down the road to Novem­ber, Boehlert voices con­fid­ence that House Re­pub­lic­ans will keep their ma­jor­ity, in part be­cause of the mod­er­ates’ “con­struct­ive” role. But Boehlert — who will be forced to step down this year as Sci­ence Com­mit­tee chair­man be­cause of the GOP’s term lim­its, and who has voiced in­terest in lead­ing the Trans­port­a­tion and In­fra­struc­ture Com­mit­tee — is un­cer­tain wheth­er he will seek re-elec­tion.

Sev­er­al of the mod­er­ate House Re­pub­lic­ans who face po­ten­tially tough races in swing dis­tricts con­tend that their in­de­pend­ence puts them on the right track for elect­or­al sur­viv­al. They view their cent­rist cre­den­tials as badges of hon­or.

Rep. Heath­er Wilson, R-N.M., who faces a com­pet­it­ive chal­lenge from her state’s Demo­crat­ic at­tor­ney gen­er­al, Pa­tri­cia Mad­rid, said her in­de­pend­ence serves her well. She re­cently at­trac­ted na­tion­al head­lines for rais­ing ques­tions about the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s do­mest­ic spy­ing pro­gram. “People listen to [me] be­cause I am sin­cere and I don’t play games,” Wilson said. With the po­lar­iz­a­tion between the two parties, she ad­ded, “the smal­ler num­ber of mod­er­ates stand out more…. I am al­ways look­ing for ways to show that I am an in­de­pend­ent thinker.”

Jones, whose North Car­o­lina dis­trict is home to large mil­it­ary fa­cil­it­ies, in­clud­ing the Mar­ine Corps’s Camp Le­jeune, made a big me­dia splash last year when he joined Demo­crats in call­ing for the U.S. to with­draw from Ir­aq. He has been an out­spoken mav­er­ick on oth­er is­sues, in­clud­ing the 2003 Medi­care bill. “I feel that I am a strong con­ser­vat­ive in that I want to re­duce the size of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment,” he said.

Asked how he re­sponds to pres­sures from Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers, Jones cited the ad­vice of his fath­er, who served 26 years as a House Demo­crat: “Vote your con­science first, then your con­stitu­ency, and your party comes third.”

The au­thor can be reached at rco­hen@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Al­man­ac of Amer­ic­an Polit­ics Re­search As­so­ci­ate Peter Bell as­sisted with tab­u­lat­ing the vote rat­ings.

Na­tion­al Journ­al’s 2005 vote rat­ings are avail­able on­line in a search­able data­base that al­lows you to sort and dis­play the scores of all mem­bers of Con­gress in a vari­ety of ways. Plus:

* An in­ter­act­ive map for full scores by state

* Links to the key House and Sen­ate votes used to com­pile the rat­ings

* Pre­vi­ous NJ vote rat­ings dat­ing back to 1995


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