"Little Tent" Republicans

Conservative Republicans continue to show that it's their way or the highway when it comes to Washington.

Illinois Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald told The Chicago Tribune recently that Republicans "sabotage[d]" the campaign of Senate candidate Jack Ryan, who had to pull out of the race after embarrassing disclosures from his divorce records.

"Why fight a two-front war -- against the Democrats on one hand, his own party leadership on the other hand?" Fitzgerald asked.

Considering the trouble Republicans had in coming up with a Republican candidate before Ryan -- and the fact that more than a week has passed with no replacement -- it looks like Democrat Barack Obama is almost a sure bet to pick up the seat this fall.

Another example of the GOP's disdain for its own comes from Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, who told CongressDaily recently that he's never had any one-on-one time with President Bush. But he said he's learned that by not letting
go of the president's hand immediately after shaking it at a bill-signing photo-op, he can get a few words in. It's nice to know that Bush is listening to the different wings of his party.

And on Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans are considering changing the rules of the Senate
Republican Conference to allow Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist more power to punish senators who stray from the party line, Roll Call reported.

As Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum told the paper, Republican lawmakers are concerned "that our leader has less levers to be able to accomplish what he wants to accomplish" than other congressional leaders. "They believe giving the leader some more options is something we need to consider."

What prompted this thinking is the trouble Republicans are having as they try to pass a budget. Arizona Sen. John McCain, for example, has said he wants to see the
Republican Party adhere to fiscal discipline. Rather than compromising, conservatives prefer to dig in their heels and change the system. There's talk, for example, of assigning committee seats not by seniority but by having Frist award positions.

Whether Republicans actually pass this rule change remains to be seen. Doing so would harden the partisan lines that already exist and could render the few moderate Republicans who buck the party's position -- Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, as well as McCain -- less effective. So much for the "Big Tent" Republican Party. Even as Republicans contemplate this clampdown, however, Bush is all too happy to rely on McCain on the campaign trail to give him cover on the Iraq War. McCain, the loyal military man, has complied.

Moderate Republicans would do well to think about what they are actually getting from or giving to the party these days. Obviously, party leaders aren't anxious to hear
their opinions when they disagree with the party line. GOP leaders are looking for a top-down system where they give the orders and lawmakers blindly follow
them, contrary to a spirit of the Senate that stresses individualism. And, as long as Bush sits in the White House, you can bet that he'll be the one who's really driving the agenda on Capitol Hill. This means that besides facing anger from Senate leaders, moderate Republicans may be frozen out by the White House as well, except when it's politically convenient for the president.

But even if Republicans can demand more unity on the Senate side, the party as a whole is showing some divisions. There's still disagreement among Senate and House Republicans and the White House, over funding the six-year transportation bill. It would be much easier for Republicans if all of its party members were on the same page. Pretending that that's the case, despite evidence to the contrary, won't make the problem go away.

Perhaps this is one of the dangers of becoming too comfortable with majority status. The conservative leaders of the Republican Party have donned blinders that make them believe everything should go their way; they ignore warning signs that suggest
otherwise. Their belief that, as the majority party, they should always prevail has in fact made them vulnerable. Voters didn't endorse a conservative agenda in 2000 or even in 2002, and the electorate remains almost split down the middle.

Democrats learned a painful lesson in 1994 about just how vulnerable a majority party can be, especially if it doesn't listen to all members of its party. They didn't heed party members who warned that passing some legislation -- such as the assault-weapons ban -- could cost them control of Congress. Republicans, at least at the White House and Senate
level, look like they could be headed down the same road.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.