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Copyright 1999 The National Journal, Inc.  
The National Journal

October 23, 1999

SECTION: CONGRESS; Pg. 3060; Vol. 31, No. 43

LENGTH: 1569 words

HEADLINE: In the House, a Squishy Middle No More

BYLINE: David Baumann


     A few years ago, Republican moderates in the House were
known as the ''Lunch Bunch'' because they routinely met over a
noon meal. Apparently fearing that no group with that name would
be taken seriously, they soon became the ''Tuesday Group.'' The
only problem: They don't always meet on Tuesday.

     But these days, no one's laughing at the ''Wednesday
Group,'' or whatever the approximately 40 House GOP moderates are
calling themselves. They have tipped the balance on a variety of
high-profile issues in recent months, and are poised to continue
to do so as leaders look to wrap up this legislative session.

     During the summer, the Republican moderates temporarily
derailed tax cut legislation until their leaders agreed to add
debt reduction provisions. This fall, the moderates confounded
their conservative colleagues by voting with Democrats to pass
bipartisan legislation in the House on patients' rights and
campaign finance reform. Now, Republican moderates are helping to
shape minimum-wage legislation--an issue that Speaker J. Dennis
Hastert, R-Ill., conceded back in March would probably come to a
House vote this year because of the moderates' persistence.      Through it all, the message of the moderate Republicans
has been clear: Although they were willing before to roll over
for the good of the party, or simply to keep the legislative
machine humming, they're not going to be pushovers any longer.

     The moderates are well-positioned to hold considerable
sway over the final appropriations measures, many of which
include programs that Democrats, the Clinton Administration, and
yes, GOP moderates, list as high priorities. ''The moderates are
going to play a disproportionately influential role in how this
plays out,'' said moderate Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-N.Y.

     Another Republican cautioned that House GOP leaders need
to be wary of the moderates' concerns. ''It's almost impossible
for them (the leaders) to control the issues,'' said a former
aide to a House GOP conservative lawmaker. ''It's a problem, yes.
But it's one that's not going to go away. So they better figure
out how to manage them.''

     It wasn't always like this. When Republicans took control
of the House in 1995, their majority was large enough that losing
a few Northeastern moderate members on key votes did not matter.
Back then, the moderates would often rattle their swords when
they were unhappy with legislation, but they would eventually
cave in and vote with Republican leaders, who would make appeals
for party loyalty.

     Now, given the House GOP's four-vote majority, the
moderates hold significant power. ''With the majority as it is,
the moderates are more important than the left wing or the right
wing,'' said one House Republican.

     The importance of the moderates was evident in the recent
debate on patients' rights legislation. Their support for the
bipartisan measure pushed by Reps. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., and
John D. Dingell, D-Mich., lent the bill the momentum it needed to
pass on Oct. 7, despite last-ditch attempts by Hastert to salvage
control. ''In the last 24 hours, (Republican leaders) tried to
work out a deal on the Patients' Bill of Rights,'' said moderate
Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J. ''That's ridiculous.''

     Republican leaders are trying a different tactic on
legislation long supported by moderates to increase the minimum
wage, an issue that the House is expected to debate in short
order. The leaders asked one of the moderates, Rep. Rick A.
Lazio, R-N.Y., to develop a bill that packages business tax
breaks that many GOP members favor with a minimum-wage increase.

     GOP leaders ''know they can't control (minimum-wage
legislation) from coming to the floor, so they're trying to make
it more palatable,'' said the former House Republican aide. A key
conservative lawmaker said that the tradeoff is essential. ''Will
we get tax cuts in exchange for the minimum wage?'' asked Rep.
Tom Coburn, R-Okla. ''Yes, or we won't get minimum wage.''

     Whether the leaders' efforts on the minimum-wage issue
are successful remains to be seen. This week, some middle-of-the-
road Republicans questioned whether the Lazio proposal was strong
enough; they said that the three-year phase-in of the $ 1 per-hour
wage increase was too slow. That left Republican leaders busy
counting votes to determine how far the moderates could push the

     Whatever the outcome on the minimum-wage legislation, the
moderates are clearly enjoying their new power. ''The good news
is that the moderates are swaying public policy,'' said Boehlert,
who disputed any notion that Democrats are controlling the
issues. ''Democrats are voting with us. We are the majority.''

     But the fact remains that on several issues, the
moderates are voting with Democrats, a development that leaves
Roukema uneasy. She said that GOP leaders should have done more
earlier this year to bring together the various wings of the
House Republican Conference. ''I'd like to control the agenda at
the start,'' Roukema said. ''I don't like letting the Democrats
take over the turf. Yes, it's uncomfortable, but in my district,
that's a Republican approach.''

     For several years, conservative House Democrats have
urged moderate Republicans--without much success--to work with
them routinely and in a more organized manner, noted Rep. Charles
W. Stenholm of Texas, a key member of the Blue Dog Coalition of
moderate Democrats. ''The right-of-center is where the action
is,'' Stenholm said. ''We've been trying to point that out for
years now.''

     The rise of the moderates, however, has clearly made some
of their fellow House Republicans uncomfortable. Conservative
Rep. David McIntosh, R-Ind., maintained that the recent moves by
the moderates have upset the conservative GOP base. ''It works in
their districts,'' McIntosh said of the moderates. ''I can tell
you it doesn't work in the Midwest. People want to know what
happened to the Republican majority. I think the moderates have
the responsibility not to risk our majority. I think they're
doing it.''

     But other Republicans said that conservatives must
understand that times have changed since 1995, when they could
control the agenda. ''They need to do a better job of realizing
that they can't prevent these bills from passing, so they need to
work on making them as conservative as possible,'' said the
former aide to a House conservative.

     The moderates' case has been bolstered somewhat by the
''compassionate conservatism'' of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the
front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, who has
recently questioned whether congressional GOP leaders are
spending too much time pushing a conservative economic agenda.
Bush embarrassed House conservatives several weeks ago when he
said that their proposed changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit
would balance the budget on the backs of the poor.

     Going into the closing days of this session, moderates
are expected to continue to push for social spending and fiscal
restraint, while GOP leaders merely will try not to give
President Clinton all the money he wants.

     A major battleground is the appropriations bill covering
the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education departments.
The funding levels for programs in that bill will have to be
sufficiently high if Clinton is to support it. Such a bill
probably will lose conservative Republican votes, so the
appropriators will have to depend on a combination of moderate
Republicans and Democrats for passage. For months, House GOP
leaders have been unable to put together a Labor-HHS bill that
can accomplish that goal and not bust the budget.

     ''Do I wish there were more Republican moderates in the
Congress and the (Republican) Conference?'' asked House Labor-HHS
Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Edward Porter, R-Ill.
''Of course.''

     Boehlert said that the moderates will insist on adequate
spending for Labor-HHS programs. ''We're damn sure not going to
stand by while there are cuts in . . . programs that are vital,''
he said. At the same time, some moderates are not comfortable
with budget gimmicks that Republicans are using to boost
spending. ''There are a number of us who are going to refuse to
play the smoke-and-mirrors games,'' said Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.

     Conservatives and some Republican leaders are pushing for
an across-the-board cut in spending to pay for increases in the
Labor-HHS bill. Republican moderates are split over that
proposal. Boehlert said he does not like treating all federal
programs equally, but other moderates, such as Rep. Michael N.
Castle, R-Del., say they see nothing wrong with the plan.

     How the budget battle ultimately plays out is not clear.
But with conservatives pushing to hold the line on spending, and
Democrats and moderate Republicans calling for spending boosts in
key programs, the answer likely falls somewhere in the middle.
''The sensible center can control the agenda,'' Stenholm said.

LOAD-DATE: October 25, 1999

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