WASHINGTON – With Democrats in the majority when the Senate comes back from vacation next week, Republicans are plotting their next move. But one thing conservatives say the GOP should avoid in the wake of the Jim Jeffords defection is suddenly acting like Democrats.
The Vermont senator's break with the Republicans put a spotlight on the GOP's dilemma of keeping the moderate and liberal members of its party happy while advancing the conservative elements of its legislative agenda.
"Right now they're scared," Ron Faucheux, the editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections magazine, says of the GOP leadership. "I think the general feeling is that they need to embrace the moderates as much as they can without compromising on principle to the extent they can avoided it."
Despite the concerns, some prominent Republicans don't see a leftward lurch anytime soon. "I don't think you're going to see a shift center-left in the Republican Party," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "What you will see is — I believe, I hope — more of a reaching out, more of an accommodation for other points of view."
That's what some GOP senators, such as Arizona's John McCain, say they would like to see. Immediately after the Jeffords defection, McCain issued a strongly-worded statement in which he chastised those in the GOP who harbor a mindset he suggested was responsible for the Jeffords move.
"Tolerance of dissent is the hallmark of a mature party," he said seeming to speak as much of his own dissenting views on issues such as campaign finance as he was on Jeffords' own views. "And it is well past time for the Republican Party to grow up."
McCain's comments came while conservative Republicans were still licking their wounds over losing control of the Senate. And the remarks, coupled with an increasingly liberal voting record, have strained the Arizona senator's relationship with other GOP members.
McCain has opposed much of the Bush agenda and he voted against the Bush tax cut. He's even co-sponsoring gun legislation with Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and HMO reform with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
Relations have become so tense, there is now open speculation McCain, too, may bolt the party. Although McCain says he's not leaving, some Democrats think he may be ripe to jump the GOP ship, and Democratic sources say there have been several recent and serious discussions with him.
"McCain has been marginalized as part of the Republican position in the Senate and as part of the Republican Party nationally," Faucheux said. "I think the only rational explanation for his behavior and his voting record in recent months is if he wants to run for president as an independent. If he doesn't want to do that, I don't think it makes a lot of sense other than just an ego-driven desire to get headlines."
Conservatives See Opportunity in Changes
And though the Democrats will soon control the Senate, and the GOP caucus in the Senate is in disarray, conservatives are quick to point out the Republicans control Congress and the White House.
Conservative activist Grover Norquist, who hosts a weekly power lunch for GOP insiders, downplays the Democrats' new-found power. "The idea that this empowers the left is a very silly one," he says. Still, he's launching an all-out attack on their Senate leader, South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle.
"The people of South Dakota are about to discover that the nice, reasonable Tom Daschle who is a hale fellow, well met in South Dakota...carried water for labor unions and big city political machines and does everything Jesse Jackson tells him to here in Washington, D.C."
-- Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report