It's been fun to watch Republican Party leaders on Capitol Hill snarl at one another the last few weeks. House Republicans are livid at their Senate colleagues, especially Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), for approving a $350 billion tax cut. "It's time that Mr. Frist gets his chamber in order," one House aide told The Hill. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, feel their House counterparts, who passed a $550 billion tax cut, don't understand how hard it is to govern in a chamber where one senator can hold up debate and where their party has a mere two-vote majority.
Ah, the perils of united government. After an election year in which Republicans blamed the "Daschle Democrats" for not allowing the GOP to enact legislation -- and told voters that things would be better if only they controlled both the House and Senate -- the GOP is proving that one-party control doesn't mean laws will be made quickly and neatly. It's a lesson that both parties always seem to forget until it's too late.
In 1993, Democrats looked unstoppable, controlling both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in a generation. Then came the issue of gays in the military, which upset some conservative Democrats such as Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn. Suddenly a party that had appeared to be of one mind just months earlier was at war with itself. Add a failed health-care proposal, an anti-incumbent mood and a Republican revolution, and the result was that the GOP won control of Congress in 1994.
Flash forward to 2001. Again, one party -- this time the Republicans -- reigned in Washington. George W. Bush, who like Bill Clinton received less than 50 percent of the popular vote, made a controversial issue -- a mammoth tax cut -- the first item on his agenda. And he paid the price when he didn't listen to one of the GOP moderates, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords. A few weeks later, Democrats controlled the Senate.
To win elections, parties often paper over the differences that divide their members. The problem is, that's not how you govern. Governing requires finding out the positions of all your party's members and coming up with a bill that both espouses the principles you believe in and that you can also realistically pass. You may not get all of what you want. You may not please everyone. But sometimes getting something is better than getting nothing. Perhaps that's why Frist, Grassley and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who was the assistant minority leader last year, went along with requests from Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) for a smaller-than-originally-proposed $350 billion package -- because the leadership knew that without moderate support, it might not get any tax cut at all.
Yes, Frist may not have handled the tax-cut deal elegantly; he should have kept his House counterparts and his lieutenants privy to what was going on. But conservatives on both sides of the Hill don't seem to understand the realities of governing with narrow majorities: You sometimes have to make compromises to get things done. Yet these days, when a Republican disagrees with the party's position, he or she is labeled a heretic or, in today's version of a put-down, a Francophile. Grassley, a pretty loyal Republican, is being abandoned by other GOPers who want to keep him from chairing the conference committee.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, told The New York Times recently, "I have to say, I'm really starting to get concerned about this phenomenon. It really bothers me that at a time when the president is focused on other things, well, Republicans ought to be rallying around him, and they aren't willing to be part of the team. I hope they don't continue to block his agenda."
But Kyl is missing the point: It's not that Republicans such as Snowe and Voinovich aren't willing to be part of the team; they just need to be asked to join. By ignoring the differences that exist among its party members -- differences that reflect the real and varying opinions of American voters -- Republicans risk overreaching, angering some of their constituents and losing votes in 2004. If that happens, yet another short-lived era of united government will come to an end. Let the snarling continue.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.