Two lopsided votes in the U.S. Senate last week reveal a power vacuum in the Republican Party.
President Bush’s influence is diminishing quickly, Sen. John McCain has not yet established himself as the party’s leader, and Senate Republicans are worried more about their own reelection prospects than they are about the need to stand by either man.
“The Senate has already basically decided to disregard Bush,” said one GOP Senate aide.
But in joining Democrats in voting to override Bush’s veto of the Farm Bill and to approve Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb’s expansive new GI Bill, a substantial number of Senate Republicans also disregarded McCain. The Arizona senator has said he would have vetoed the Farm Bill if he were president, and he opposes Webb’s GI Bill in favor of a less expensive version of his own.
But McCain didn’t show up for the votes. And although Republican leaders specifically pitched the vote on the Webb bill as a test of loyalty to the presumptive Republican nominee — “It’s us against them,” GOP senators were told — 25 Republicans ultimately crossed over to support the legislation.
The White House hopes to regroup and rally House Republicans to the president’s side. In fact, conservative factions in the House are already demanding that their leadership shift to the right.
But Senate Republicans, to a large degree, have already made a different decision: They will support any legislation deemed important for their reelection, no matter what position the president takes.
If House Republicans don’t follow suit, that’s their problem.
“They wouldn’t be ‘holding the bag’ if they told Bush to go jump off a bridge, which is what we did,” explained the GOP aide.
Questions over Bush’s pull within his own party have been raised at least since last summer, when the president couldn’t get his signature immigration reform package through the Senate despite McCain’s active support. Yet Bush and the GOP leadership, particularly Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), won most of the big spending fights during the fall, especially on Iraq.
But three losses in House special elections — including back-to-back defeats in Louisiana and Mississippi — have GOP lawmakers, aides and political strategists questioning anew whether Republicans should stick with a lame-duck president who is so unpopular that the McCain campaign has accepted his fundraising help only on the condition that the events he attends be held in private.
“No one wants to be seen as aligning with Bush right now,” said a GOP lobbyist close to the House and Senate Republican leadership. “Look, Cheney went to Mississippi [to campaign on behalf of Republican House candidate Greg Davis], and all we did was lose that election by 8 points. Republicans have to do what they have to do, and if the White House doesn’t like it, too bad.”
On the Farm Bill, the White House saw defections in both chambers. Farm groups had targeted between 75 and 80 House Republicans; they picked up 100. The Senate followed with even greater margins as McConnell joined in opposition to Bush.
In the case of the GI Bill and Iraq funding, McConnell vowed greater loyalty. But to his embarrassment, he couldn’t hold on to Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, Missouri Sen. Kit Bond and Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, three men running in what would seem to be low-risk reelection races in November.
Just a week before, the Kentuckian had personally promised House Republicans that he and his conference would stand with them on a veto strategy. The first goal was to summon 41 votes to delay action. Failing that, Republicans needed 34 votes to show they could sustain a Bush veto.
True to his word, McConnell and other leaders whipped hard on the vote, but the Kentuckian was overwhelmed by the power of th GI issue, leading to his most serious loss as Republican leader since taking over the post at the start of the 110th Congress.
The first sign of trouble came when Roberts bolted early in the voting after being counted by the leadership as one of its own. This shook a group of Republican fence sitters, who were also lured by extra spending for their priorities, including increased funding for rural schools. The die was cast when Bond crossed over to vote with Democrats, followed by Chambliss and Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, who had talked privately beforehand and decided to vote together against their leaders because of the GI package.
By that point, there was little or no hope of reversing the outcome, and a last scramble of Republicans elevated the final vote to 75-22.
A GOP insider called the vote “a referendum on Bush” by Senate Republicans, with the president clearly coming down on the losing side of the political equation.
White House budget director Jim Nussle reacted bitterly to the Senate vote, saying, “Our men and women in uniform deserve better than having essential wartime resources held hostage to billions in unrelated spending.”
McCain and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, also engaged in a cross-country war of words on the vote, but cooler heads may yet prevail.
McCain dialed back his rhetoric at a Memorial Day appearance in New Mexico on Monday, acknowledging that both he and Obama believe Americans “owe veterans the respect and generosity of a great nation.”
While McCain said he remains “committed” to his bill “despite the support Sen. Webb’s bill has received,” administration officials concede that it could be in their interest — and House Republicans’ — to defuse the GI education issue with some compromise.
Democrats, for their part, may be emboldened enough by last week’s votes to resurrect other high-profile legislative issues as a means of further splitting congressional Republicans, Bush and McCain. They will almost certainly make another run at child health insurance legislation, which House Republicans have blocked twice by sustaining Bush vetoes. A second possibility is energy tax legislation, which would shift money from oil companies to alternative energy programs and was only narrowly defeated in the Senate last year.
But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the House Democratic leadership face some political challenges of their own. The U.S. economy is weak, and the party does not want to be seen going on a huge federal spending spree just as voters are forced to make do with less at home.
In some cases, Democrats are winning these legislative battles by submerging their own differences on new federal spending — differences that could come back to haunt them as the legislation moves through the process. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) voted with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on the Webb legislation but has complained loudly that the GI Bill — which would cost almost $52 billion over 10 years — should be paid for.
Conservative Blue Dogs are still a factor in the House, and they want the cost of the veterans’ package offset by either spending cuts or new taxes.
Pelosi and the House Democrats also want to avoid a veto fight with Bush on the war supplemental. Senate Democrats are more cavalier about that possibility, but Pelosi is eager for a deal if Bush will move forward on the GI Bill and some of the domestic spending favored by Democrats.
Meanwhile, the Senate vote on Webb’s bill may force the hands of House Republicans. When the bill came up in the House this month, only 32 Republicans broke ranks; most were opposed to a Democrat-backed surtax to pay for the benefits. But no such levy is in the Senate bill, and House Republicans will now face pressure from veterans’ groups, who can remind OP House members, in many cases, that their home-state Republican senators backed the spending.
“Sure, the vote in the Senate on domestic spending puts increased pressure on House Republicans — they took out the tax increase,” a House GOP aide acknowledged. “But the president has to first determine what he wants to do. That’s why any discussions about what’ll happen in the House are purely speculation at this point.”
Patrick O’Connor contributed to this story.