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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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