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GOP Shifts From White House

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/bush-hand2.jpgPresident George W. Bush (WDCpix)

As Congress wraps up business on the eve of a week-long Memorial Day break, an odd thing is happening in the Republican Party: Its once-faithful members are breaking from the White House. In droves.

The Senate on Thursday voted 75 to 22 in favor of billions of dollars in domestic spending that was passed with an emergency bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration supports the war funding, but opposes the domestic provisions, including a new GI Bill for education, which are not offset. Nonetheless, 25 Republicans resisted the White House to support the domestic programs.

Congress_3268.jpg
Congress_3268.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Hours later, the upper chamber voted overwhelmingly to override Wednesday’s presidential veto of a $300 billion agriculture bill. Thirty-five Republicans crossed the fence to buck the administration. The House staged a similarly successful override vote Wednesday, with 100 Republicans defying the administration’s position.

The defections highlight the panic within a Republican Party in search of reinvention. Already this year, Republicans have lost three House seats following special elections in decidedly conservative districts.

The message seems stark: Faced with an unpopular war, a sinking economy and skyrocketing fuel prices, voters are hungry for change. Now, with President George W. Bush’s approval ratings hovering below 30 percent, Republican lawmakers appear increasingly eager to cut some ties to the White House. Anything less, party leaders are beginning to fear, could spell disaster in the looming elections.

The signs of a brewing election year catastrophe have not been overlooked by the party faithful. In a May 6 article in Human Events, a conservative journal, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned of an immediate need for redirection. “Either congressional Republicans are going to chart a bold course of real change,” Gingrich wrote, “or they are going to suffer decisive losses this November.”

In a letter to GOP leaders last week, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) echoed the message. “[I]f we were a dog food, they would take us off the shelf,” wrote Davis, who has decided not to run for re-election.

But if a return to small government and fiscal conservatism are part of the soul searching, they were not on display this week. The farm bill, for example, includes billions in federal subsidies to be paid regardless of crop prices, which are soaring, and farmers’ incomes, which are well above the national average.

Chris Edwards, director of policy at the Cato Institute, a libertarian policy organization, called the bill a “bigger-government, Soviet-style” piece of legislation — not exactly an enticing description for a party seeking to rework its image to appease its conservative base.

Moreover, to pay for the farm bill, lawmakers assume that several programs, including disaster assistance, will simply end after five years — a highly unlikely scenario that would cost billions to patch. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a budget hawk who voted against the farm bill, said Thursday that the entire bill contains $18 billion in such gimmicks.

[T]his Farm Bill runs counter to all the concepts which we as a free market society hold to be true and effective ways to use products, to make it more cost-effective,” Gregg, the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said on the chamber floor. “Adam Smith was right. Karl Marx was wrong. Under this bill you would think it was the other way around.”

Despite Gregg’s incantations, the vote to override the veto was a lopsided 82 to 13. The GOP defections mean the farm bill is now law, marking just the second time that Congress has foiled a Bush veto.

The domestic spending bill, meanwhile, has been placed under the category of emergency appropriations, which falls outside of the pay-as-you-go-budget rules that Democrats adopted last year. The bill includes provisions to extend unemployment insurance by 13 months and update education benefits for post-9/11 veterans. The GI Bill portion alone would cost roughly $52 billion over the next 10 years.

Despite the absence of offsets, however, Republicans ignored Bush’s veto threat by lining up in support. Of the 25 GOP defectors, several face tough reelection bids this fall, but most do not.

A notable exception was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the GOP’s likely presidential nominee. Though McCain was on the campaign trail and didn’t return to Washington for the vote, he issued a statement making his opposition clear.

“Instead of attempting to hijack this vital legislation,” he said, “the authors of these extraneous provisions should pursue their objectives through the normal legislative process and as part of appropriate authorizing and spending vehicles.”

That’s consistent with McCain’s hope to gather the support of conservatives. Then again, it does nothing to distance him from the unpopular Bush.

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