Don't envy Olympia Snowe. In the last two months, the Republican senator from Maine has been called to the White House for personal lobbying by the president and vice president, cornered by the House Ways and Means Committee chairman on the Senate floor, dubbed a "Daschle Republican" by The Wall Street Journal and denounced in a television ad as a "Franco-Republican" -- all for demanding that George W. Bush's tax cut be capped at $350 billion.
Welcome to another episode in the life of a moderate Republican.
Snowe, who has opposed the White House on many issues, is polite as she listens to other Republicans make their case about the tax cut. But the pressure tactics of this administration and its allies are more heavy-handed than previous administrations' were, designed to make lawmakers who disagree with them uncomfortable enough to change their minds. It's clear that Bush views moderates as disloyal ingrates who deserve to be punished and each political skirmish as a war. As White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said about the tax cut, "This is a test of wills to see if it can be done in Congress."
To their credit, Senate moderates haven't backed down on a number of domestic issues, such as drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Miguel Estrada's nomination to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. By cutting the amount of Bush's original $726 billion tax cut and restoring funding for Medicare, Medicaid, and veterans' and education programs in the budget, moderates won a victory of sorts -- although even a reduced tax cut is still a payoff to the wealthy at a time of skyrocketing deficits and unmet social needs. Nevertheless, their victory excited the moderate troops. As Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) told me, "We've gotten a lot of new energy and steam because people are paying attention to us."
They'll need it. Other administrations have employed tactics to influence lawmakers such as phone calls from the president, visits to home states -- such as Bush's recent trip to Ohio to try to sway Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) on the tax cut -- and snubbing lawmakers who disagree with them, as Bush did when he failed to invite Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to the campaign-finance-reform bill's signing. The Bush White House has gone further, though, with plenty of help from outside groups that have given Bush millions of dollars. The Business Roundtable, the Club for Growth and Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) all try to persuade lawmakers to toe the White House line. (ATR, for example, urges state legislatures to pass measures that support Bush's agenda in hopes of changing minds in Washington.) The Wall Street Journal has also routinely sniped at moderate Republicans. "Not even the most cynical political observers guessed that ... [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist's first major defeat would come at the hands of two fellows Republicans," stated the newspaper's editorial page, adding that "the liberal tail of the Republican Party is now wagging the dog." Additionally, an editorial took 28 House Republicans to task for asking Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to drop her proposal requiring greater union accountability. And according to The Hill, some Bush officials apparently knew beforehand about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's (R-Ga.) recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, in which he blasted Secretary of State Colin Powell for a breakdown of diplomacy in Iraq.
The pressure often pays off for the White House. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), facing a primary challenge next year from conservative Rep. Pat Toomey, opposed the initial version of Bush's 2001 tax cut, but he backed it this year. He also defended conservative Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) after the latter compared homosexuality to adultery and incest. Even Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), who recently told The New York Times that he couldn't think of one area where he agreed with Bush, said, "I'm with [the administration] when I can be." He pointed to his support for Estrada as an example. (Of course, that vote held little risk for Chafee because it was obvious that Estrada wouldn't clear the Senate floor.)
But again and again the moderates find themselves in tough positions. Two years ago, when Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) bolted the GOP, Specter was named to a leadership position, and conservatives vowed (publicly at least) to be more inclusive of moderates. That hasn't happened. Republicans "learned nothing from Jeffords," says Ross Baker, a political-science professor at Rutgers University. "The pull toward the right is so strong that liberals or moderates are seen as an anomaly or curiosity at best, or a viper in the bosom of the party at worst. There's a view of them as apostates." Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Finance Committee chairman who struck the original $350 billion deal, warned his colleagues that ignoring the moderates could lead to another Jeffords-like defection.
Nowhere is the intraparty fight more clear than the schism between the conservative Club for Growth, run by Stephen Moore, a former aide to Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), and the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership (RMSP), which is chaired by Snowe's husband, former Gov. John McKernan (R-Maine). The Club for Growth, which says it supports "the Reagan vision of limited government and lower taxes," targeted Snowe with the anti-French ads (which, ironically, backfired because about 25 percent of Maine's population is of French descent). Its Web site includes a list of "Republicans in Name Only," and club members gave the group and its candidates more than $10 million last year.
LaHood, a member of the RMSP, contends that the club's approach is shortsighted. "We've never had a strategy of going after conservatives that don't agree with us," he says. And he predicts that if Republicans keep targeting one another, they'll end up in the minority again. The Club for Growth doesn't seem to care. Its Web site includes a quote from former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), now an MSNBC talking head. "Without Club for Growth," Scarborough says, "we would have been stuck with a free-spending Republican liberal for 20 years!"
The moderates insist such intimidation tactics aren't going to work. They plan to use the momentum from the tax-cut fight on issues such as education funding and a prescription-drug benefit. "We've shown that we've got the determination and the votes and the ability to make a difference," LaHood says. Let's hope the moderates use all three in the months ahead.
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