Conservatives Launch Caucus

Posted October 30, 2007 at 6:32pm

Frustrated by what they see as a party gone astray, a group of House and Senate conservatives led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) today will announce a new bicameral caucus aimed at returning fiscal restraint, ethics and national defense to the fore of the GOP’s philosophical and policy platforms.

The group — which in addition to DeMint and Hensarling is made up of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) — will officially announce the creation of their new caucus — dubbed Reagan21. They also will unveil their “statement of policy commitment,” which includes 10 key positions on issues ranging from Congressional earmarks to health care reform.

While participants are billing the new caucus as a complement to the leadership teams in place in the House and Senate, Republicans familiar with the project acknowledge that to a certain degree it is a challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), because implicitly the call for a new direction is a rejection of the course they have steered along with President Bush.

“When you’re saying, ‘Here’s the vision of what the party should be,’ you’re saying the vision isn’t there right now,” said a House Republican not directly involved with the effort.

A second Republican agreed, arguing that a more broad change in how the party runs is needed.

“Whenever there’s a vacuum in elected or political leadership, there’s a need to fill it. When you have leadership positions not resulting in leadership, people will go elsewhere,” the second Republican said, adding the problems of the party go far beyond simple messaging conflicts.

“It’s a fight for [the GOP’s] soul, not just a superficial divide. There are people who believe it’s the job of Republican Members to come here and send money home to their states and to expand government. And that’s just not what rank-and-file party members want.”

Today’s announcement of the group’s principles for reform of the Republican Party are the first in a series of steps that the caucus will take over the next several months. Members are in the process of setting up independent outside institutions — similar to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation — to support their activities, and they will have a Web site up and running in the next few weeks.

Although details of those plans were unclear at press time Tuesday, one member of the group said the caucus will use the foundation as a semi-independent apparatus to communicate with Republicans outside Washington, D.C., as well as the general public.

Although members of the group declined to comment on the caucus on the record, one Member involved said the lawmakers believe the GOP’s elected leaders have strayed from the party’s traditional fiscal conservative roots.

“A few of us here are trying to change the culture” of the GOP, the lawmaker said, adding that “the core values of the Republican Party are not being adhered to by the party inside Congress. But there’s a yearning for it outside the Beltway.”

According to Republicans familiar with the effort, it arose from meetings between DeMint, who chairs the Republican Steering Committee in the Senate, and Hensarling, who chairs the Republican Study Committee in the House. Both organizations are the hub for conservative efforts in the chambers, and following the disastrous 2006 election, DeMint and Hensarling began holding meetings in an effort to better coordinate their efforts.

Eventually, the two began to bring other lawmakers into these Member-only meetings. Following months of discussion, the group decided to start the caucus, choosing a name that would invoke the core fiscal principles of former President Ronald Reagan for the 21st century.

The principles — which new members will be required to make a pledge to follow and which will be the centerpiece of the group’s legislative and public outreach efforts — cover a wide variety of issues. For instance, members of the caucus will be required to foreswear asking for any new earmarks in legislation. The principles also call for reforms to the tax code and entitlement programs, including the implementation of personal “ownership” of retirement security and health care decisions, according to a copy of a document obtained by Roll Call. Members of the caucus also will support expansion of intelligence and other national defense programs, as well as an aggressive border security approach to immigration.

While all of the members of the group would likely fall under the broad rubric of “social conservatives,” the principles steer clear of issues like abortion or gay marriage. According to those involved in the effort, members of Reagan21, according to one, have decided that while those issues are important to them, they have decided to “focus on the fiscal policy issues that I think really killed us last year.”

Republicans privately also applauded the decision to stay with traditional fiscal issues rather than expand the group’s focus into social topics. One source noted that while most base Republican voters are fierce social conservatives, many independent voters and disaffected Democrats — who agree with the GOP on fiscal issues and ethics — are turned off by the party’s heavy tilt toward its social wing.

According to GOP aides, the group has operated under strict confidentiality rules as it has hashed out how it will operate and what its mission should be — so much so that staff continue to have only a sketchy idea of what their bosses are envisioning. Additionally, the members of the group have agreed to not tip their hand to either Boehner or McConnell before today’s news conference, although they have begun reaching out to like-minded Members in the House and Senate to join the group.

The formation of the caucus is the latest in a series of breaks between conservatives, particularly in the Senate, and the party’s traditional power centers this year. DeMint and Coburn have openly and repeatedly attacked “Old Bulls” in the party like Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) for their use of earmarks. Additionally, conservatives openly broke with their leaders this spring over the immigration bill.

The Reagan21 member cautioned that the caucus’s critique of current GOP positions should not be seen as members “tak[ing] a swipe at anybody” in leadership positions. “They’ve got a tough job and it’s hard to get your arms around the whole party” in a way that could facilitate reform, the lawmaker explained, adding that Reagan21 participants see themselves as “the conscience of the Republican Party here” in Washington.

But reform will be key if Republicans are to avoid further electoral loses next year, this member said.

“Unless the Republicans get together and define themselves we’re going to get caught in fog. … I don’t want to be Democrat-lite,” the lawmaker said, adding that the group hopes to attract Members who have long been fiscal conservatives as well as new recruits. Reagan21 hopes “that a lot of these Republicans who like to think they can have it both ways — go home and talk like conservatives but come here and vote for whatever they want — will be forced to come to our side. We can’t continue to allow a few people in our party continue to pervert what we are about.”