Moderates Derail GOP Agenda

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A year's work hangs in the balance for the Republican-controlled Congress, its conservative agenda sketched confidently last winter: cut taxes, open wildlife refuge in Alaska to oil drilling, and hold down the cost of health, education and nutrition programs that serve millions.

The agenda is the same. But the confidence is shaken by President Bush's sagging poll numbers, an unstable leadership lineup in the House and growing concern about congressional elections less than a year away.

"Where you stand depends on where you sit," says GOP Rep. Rob Simmons. In his case, it's a district in Connecticut that Democrat John Kerry captured handily in the 2004 presidential race.

Simmons, in his third term, also is unhappy with the deficit-cutting bill ardently sought by the conservatives who hold sway in his party.

Across the Capitol, moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe balks at extending reduced rates on income from investments, leaving Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee without a majority to advance $64 billion in tax cuts.

"We're in a different economic environment," said the Maine Republican, who so far has no Democratic challenger in her 2006 race. "We've had three back-to-back hurricanes" that have cost billions.

The Finance Committee chairman, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said: "If I move one way, I lose a couple votes. If I move another way, I lose a couple votes."

The same predicament applies in the House, where the leadership is short of the votes needed to cut projected deficits by $50 billion or more over the next decade.

The original target was $35 billion. But that was before conservatives intervened this fall with a demand for deeper reductions to offset at some of the billions spent on cleanup and reconstruction from Hurricane Katrina and other storms.

Rep. Tom DeLay, the one-time majority leader, stepped in to champion their cause at the same time he was working to hold his support among the rank and file. The Texan faces an indictment in his home state on campaign finance charges.

DeLay's legal difficulties complicate the pursuit of a GOP agenda in another way.

Some House Republicans favor new leadership elections in January, a year ahead of schedule. Their hope is to end an awkward situation in which the GOP whip, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, also is acting as majority leader while DeLay tries to triumph in court.

Faced with a moderates' revolt on the deficit-cutting bill, Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., agreed to jettison from that bill the proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. That move netted several votes, but not enough to assure passage.

Moderates are the main holdouts.

"I remain opposed to changes the bill would make to food stamps, Medicaid, student loan programs and payments to help states enforce child support agreements," Simmons said in a written statement.

There were other problems.

The oil concession offended conservatives who long have advocated oil exploration in the refuge. "Right now, how I vote on final passage is between me and my maker," said Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, a supporter of the drilling provision.

The overall agenda was conceived nearly a year ago, when Republicans basked in the glow of Bush's re-election and their own increased majorities in the House and Senate.

Now, the president's polling is lower than at any point in his administration, and GOP concern was deepened by off-year elections that included defeat in last Tuesday's Virginia gubernatorial election.

In the Senate, Republicans hold 55 seats but have had a subpar recruiting season to date. Democratic fundraising has been robust.

GOP Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a prominent conservative and member of the leadership, faces a double-digit deficit in most polls. He cited a scheduling conflict Friday for his decision to skip a Veterans Day event in Pennsylvania that featured Bush.

The president made a campaign-style defense of the war in Iraq, replete with mocking references to Kerry and other Democrats who now criticize the administration daily.

Santorum took a different tack. "Mistakes were made" in Iraq, he told reporters. The war has been "less than optimal," he added, and "maybe some blame could be laid" at the White House.

One House Republican was considerably more blunt than Santorum. Asked if he would want Bush to campaign for him in Arizona, Rep. J.D. Hayworth replied on "Imus in the Morning" show: "In a word, no. Not at this time."

Hayworth has averaged 60 percent of the vote in his past two elections.

On paper, it will be far easier for Hayworth, a conservative from the Sun Belt, to win a new term than it will be for Simmons, a New England moderate.

But first, the leadership remains intent on passing the legislation drafted at the behest of conservatives.

"We haven't done this in 10 years, so the members aren't used to dealing with these mandatory programs," Blunt said of Medicaid, food stamps, student loans and other programs that automatically rise with population changes.

"They're not used to pushing back when the other side suggests that the savings are deep cuts in social programs."

Thursday's decision to put off the vote was a "disappointing deadline" to miss, Blunt said, adding that he expects to gain the necessary support in the next few days.