Remaining House GOP Moderates Regroup

Posted May 11, 2004 at 6:48pm

While the jury is still out on whether Republicans this fall will lose the seat currently held by retiring Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), the GOP is already assured of chalking up a different kind of loss: that of another long-serving moderate.

Quinn is the fourth prominent centrist Republican to announce his retirement this Congress, following Reps. Doug Ose (Calif.), Doug Bereuter (Neb.) and Amo Houghton (N.Y.).

But while an unusually large number of middle-of-the-road GOP lawmakers plan to make this Congress their last, both those Members and the moderates who intend to stick around said that the exodus is not indicative of any broader frustration or any dilution of centrists’ clout within the House.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said the fact that Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) are remaining in Congress means that the faction’s leadership will remain stable, thus softening the impact of the other lawmakers’ departures.

But because Quinn arguably maintained the strongest ties to organized labor of anyone in the GOP Conference, his retirement does leave a void in one key outreach area.

“Somebody is going to have to pick that up,” LaHood said.

LaHood and others also pointed out that, even as senior moderates are retiring, a new generation of Members is taking their place. Reps. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Todd Platts (R-Pa.) and Rob Simmons (R-Conn.) are all seen as rising centrists stars.

Kirk, in particular, has made a name for himself by helping to place reforms of the budget process on the Congressional agenda.

That issue, some lawmakers say, suggests that GOP centrists have actually increased their clout in recent years, despite a conventional wisdom that says the opposite.

Moderates such as then-Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) were an important part of the coalition led by then-incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But most observers have detected a steady rightward shift in the House Republican Conference since the 1994 takeover, fed by such factors as redistricting and the ascendancy of conservatives like House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

But Castle said that where moderate clout is concerned, looks can be deceiving. “The strength of moderates is less apparent in some ways,” he said, because they are now more likely to work behind the scenes and have become less inclined to hold showy press conferences or issue bold threats.

“There is more of an inclination to work within the structure of the party,” Castle said. He cited last year’s Medicare prescription drug bill and the 2001 No Child Left Behind education measure as examples of moderates winning legislative victories without necessarily hogging the credit.

With conservatives holding the top three slots in the House GOP leadership as well as a near-monopoly on setting the chamber’s agenda, moderates have become more pragmatic about choosing their battles.

Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio), the elected leadership’s most moderate member, said it didn’t make sense for centrists to keep fighting the same losing fights. They had to look for more fertile territory, she said.

“I think the issues have defined themselves as so they know where they can make a difference and where they can’t,” Pryce said.

She cited attempts to overturn the “Mexico City” policy — which bars federal funding for international groups that promote or perform abortions — as an example of a policy that moderates had repeatedly pursued but failed to win the day. Moderates have largely given up that battle.

Complicating matters further is that centrists, who by nature reject rigid ideological purity, are often hesitant to identify themselves with a particular group.

Bereuter, for example, is widely considered a prominent centrist, yet he hesitates to describe himself that way, saying that he considers himself a fiscal conservative.

“I don’t think the factionalization of the party is desirable,” he said.

That pragmatic impulse often makes it difficult for moderates to band together as a voting bloc and issue demands to the leadership. “That’s not our strength,” said Castle, though Ose suggests that moderate unity is improving.

“We’re not where we need to be,” Ose said, “but we’re getting better.”

House GOP moderates also acknowledge that they need to improve their organizational infrastructure.

Currently, the two main avenues for lawmakers who want to shape the debate are to either win a leadership post or to snare a prominent chairmanship.

While Pryce is the highest-ranking moderate in the leadership, the only avowed centrist to wield the gavel over a full committee is Science Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.).

Reps. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) — both of whom are considered moderate on some issues — are running to take over the Appropriations Committee next year. Beyond that, the next opportunity for a centrist leader to win a gavel will likely come in the 110th Congress, when Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) could become a candidate for chairing the Ways and Means Committee.

If Johnson takes up that challenge, it will likely be an uphill battle, since GOP leaders have already made strong suggestions that they favor the more conservative Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) for the post.

Johnson acknowledges that her close identification with the moderate wing of the party could play a part in determining whether she wins the chairmanship. But she added that her ideology will likely be only one of several potential factors.

“There are no simple decisions,” she said. “It isn’t enough to be part of any faction.”