Archive for Sunday, November 10, 2002

GOP aware of pitfalls in controlling Congress

November 10, 2002


— Now that Republicans will control the House, Senate and White House, everyone from religious conservatives to anti-tax activists to business leaders has begun urging the GOP to push ahead on their pet causes, demanding results as a reward for their loyalty.

But some conservative activists and Republicans are worried that the pressure to quickly satisfy important but narrow GOP constituencies could result in political harm to their party and ultimately their cause.

The last thing the party needs looking toward the next election in 2004 is an extremist image that could prompt voters to turn back to the Democrats, they said.

The key question for the re-empowered Republicans is whether they can avoid the overreaching that so often seems to afflict a party that controls the levers of government, analysts said.

Aware of the pitfalls, some Republicans cite the leadership style of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., after the party took control of the House in 1995. It was so harsh that it repulsed voters and yielded a decisive re-election for President Bill Clinton, they said.

"I think it's fair to say there was a certain arrogance and gloating after all those years of being out of power that came across and was to the detriment of the party," said Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate who heads American Values, a public policy think tank.

It's a reaction that works both ways. When the Democrats controlled the government in 1992, they sought to push through an ambitious health-care reform plan, prompting voter backlash that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

Some Republicans are warning their colleagues not to give in to certain groups and repeat those mistakes.

"There are unsophisticated and unhelpful parts of the coalition who stand up and say, 'I want 'X' today,"' said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who leads a coalition of 120 conservative activists.

Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank, has been warning GOP leaders to lower expectations despite last Tuesday's midterm election that gave Republicans control of the Senate with at least 51 seats. The GOP added to its majority in the House.

"The constituencies got really fired up. Bush fired them up," Weyrich said. "Naturally, they expect some action, and it has to be explained to them what the realities are."

Sounding the call

Still, across the Republican spectrum, special-interest groups are making their lists and beginning to agitate for attention to their causes.

"We are going to continue to push our agenda, and the leadership can either take it up or not," said Lori Waters, executive director of the Eagle Forum, a conservative group advocating a ban on late-term abortions and human cloning and an end to amnesty for illegal aliens.

Business groups have issued statements calling for permanent tax cuts, a drop in the capital gains tax rate, tort reform, trade and energy legislation, and a terrorism insurance measure, among others.

So far, Republicans have said they want to pass homeland security legislation, confirm federal judges and make permanent last year's tax cuts.

But Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has signaled that he is proceeding with caution. Lott lost his position as majority leader in 2001 when Jeffords left the Republican Party.

"While I'm excited and elated and ready to go to work, I have learned from experience," Lott said last week.

"I'm getting a second chance to do this job. I hope I will do it, you know, better than last time and learn from those experiences. And one of them is, you don't take off down the trail, saying what you are going to do, without a lot of consultation."

No wiggle room

Democrats, meanwhile, have signaled that they have no plans to give Republicans latitude. The GOP advantage in the Senate, after all, is expected to be only 51-49, and several moderate Republicans may be tempted to join the Democrats on some issues.

Also, it takes 60 votes to quash a filibuster in the Senate, and Republicans are short of that total.

"It's all the more important for Democrats to stand up and to fight for those who don't have a voice in Washington, to fight for the principles that we have articulated, to be as representative of this country as we can be," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

That kind of talk has led Weyrich to warn conservatives, "Don't expect us to perform miracles, because we can't."

Still, the flip side of this caution, Bauer said, is that if Republicans don't do enough for their constituents, those voters might abandon them in the next election.

"The Congress can just as easily go back to Democratic hands," he said.

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