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Red ink creates Republican rift
San Francisco Chronicle


November 16, 2005

WASHINGTON - Republicans in Congress showed a remarkable unity during President Bush's first term that helped the White House pass a broad agenda - major tax cuts, a Medicare prescription drug benefit and an overhaul of federal education policy.

But less than a year into the president's second term, major divisions are appearing in the party that controls power in Washington.

After failing to move the president's top priority, Social Security reform, and rebuffing his White House counsel for a Supreme Court seat, the GOP-controlled Congress is engaged in an intraparty feud over how deeply to cut federal spending, whether to drill for oil in an Alaskan wildlife refuge and how to pay for extending almost $70 billion in tax cuts.

"We are seeing the fissures that have been there all along," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles.




Pitney said the combination of the president's low job approval ratings, growing concern over federal deficits and Republican jitters over possibly losing seats in next year's midterm congressional elections is bringing the cracks within the party to the surface.

"You've got a lot more red ink, much worse poll numbers and a president who is in his second term rather than in his first," Pitney said. "Inevitably that makes it harder for the president to get his way with Congress."

Republicans showed their willingness to buck the president when the Senate voted 90-9 last month to ban cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees - despite a White House threat to veto any bill that would limit the government's ability to interrogate terrorist suspects.

Much of the debate that has split Republicans in Congress has been about money: How can the nation pay for hurricane relief, rein in federal spending to address mounting budget deficits, and renew major tax cuts at the same time?

In the Senate Finance Committee last week, Republicans were unable to pass an almost $70 billion tax cut plan when Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, balked at extending a tax break on capital gains and dividends - which tends to favor wealthier investors - at the same time Congress is cutting social programs that benefit mostly the poor.

In the House, Republican leaders are trying to cool the intraparty tensions between moderates and conservatives over a budget bill that would cut $51 billion in federal spending.

House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., postponed a vote on the bill after GOP moderates complained it would cut too deeply into programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, college loans and foster care. Many conservatives had been pushing for even bigger cuts.

To secure enough votes for passage, Blunt reached a deal with moderates to drop provisions that would allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and in the outer continental shelf, and to soften a proposed cut in food stamps for legal immigrants. But the deal backfired when angry conservative House members said they no longer could support the package.

Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., chairman of the House Rules Committee and a top deputy to Blunt, said GOP leaders ran out of time before last week's Veterans Day holiday to persuade enough members to support the budget bill, which they hope to bring to a vote this week.

"We're going to continue talking to members ... to address those concerns," Dreier said. "Because the Democrats have refused to work with us in this effort, it is going to take more time to get to where we need to be."

Analysts said Republican moderates and conservatives are feeling more emboldened to challenge Blunt, who has stepped in as interim leader while Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, fights charges of criminal conspiracy. Some Republican members are talking about holding new leadership elections in January.

"If the substitute teacher can't control the House, then the substitute teacher doesn't get hired for the full-time job," Pitney said.

The battle in the House is also exposing long-standing divisions between East Coast Republicans, who tend to be more liberal on issues of social spending and the environment, and the conservatives who now dominate the party's leadership in Congress.

"It's the same way it was 14 years ago when I first got here," said Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Resources Committee and a staunch conservative, who was elected two years before the GOP took control of the House in 1994.

"You have guys that are kind of the old Republican Party, the establishment in the Northeast, and you have the more populist guys from the South and the West," he said. "It's a very diverse party, and for 12 years we have been able to pull it together and get things done."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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