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G.O.P. spitless over Iraq
NY Times
January 14, 2007

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 — After years of rock-solid party discipline and fealty to President Bush, Congressional Republicans have suddenly fractured in their new role as members of the minority, with some prominently deserting the White House on Iraq and others bolting from their leadership on popular domestic issues.

"We have got a lot of free agents," said Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, referring to the Republican backlash over the president's proposal for a troop increase in Iraq.

Facing as much internal party dissension as he has seen since taking office, Mr. Bush invited Republican leaders of the House and Senate to his Camp David retreat this weekend to plot strategy only days after his plan for a troop buildup ran into scorching Republican resistance on Capitol Hill. While Republican unrest about Iraq was the most visible party division, others were starkly reflected in the ease with which House Democrats pushed through initial elements of their 100-hour legislative program with substantial Republican backing.

Only one House Republican opposed changes in ethics rules. Eighty-two Republicans joined Democrats in approving an increase in the minimum wage; 68 Republicans backed the new majority's measure that puts into force remaining recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission; 48 supported a return to pay-as-you-go budget rules, and 37 endorsed expanded embryonic stem cell research.

The numbers dipped a bit on Friday, when only two dozen Republicans voted with Democrats to allow the federal government to negotiate Medicare drug prices, an issue where Republican free-market ideology clashes with the Democratic vision of the role of government. But in the often-polarized House, crossing the aisle in such numbers on major legislation is rare.

Equally telling was a little-noticed procedural vote when more than 50 Republicans rejected their party's alternative to the Democratic minimum wage legislation, normally a statement of party loyalty. "I thought it was a sham," Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, said of his own party's substitute.

The developments left many wondering whether recent days represented a permanent shift in the relationship between the White House and Congressional Republicans and a long-term weakening of party identity, or whether the combination of the magnitude of the war and the shock of losing the majority has only temporarily altered the terrain.

Democrats were bolstered by the turn of events. "I think we are where the majority of America is, and you are seeing that even on Iraq," said Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, who like other Democrats said rank-and-file Republicans were responding to the results from November.

"I think they recognize that the last election was a call for a new direction, and they don't want to get swept away by that," Representative John B. Larson of Connecticut, a member of the Democratic leadership, said.

Leaders of both parties pointed to the president's poor poll numbers, the unpopularity of the war in Iraq and the pent-up demand for some of the legislative proposals pushed by Democrats as the explanation for the Republican splintering.

Representative Adam H. Putnam of Florida, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said he expected some Republicans flirting with Democrats to return to the fold once the new majority got past its opening legislation and moved to tougher issues.

"The Democratic ‘Six for '06' agenda was a very well-polled, message-tested agenda," Mr. Putnam said. "We are not surprised at the level of support they are finding. In past changeovers in Congress, people come in with a lot of momentum."

Mr. Putnam agreed, however, that Republicans were feeling much freer to express concern about Iraq. The harsh comments about the troop plan from well-known Republican critics like Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska was one thing. But strong statements coming from less prominent Republicans who have been Bush loyalists were quite another.

"We don't need more American troops caught in the crosshairs of a civil war," Representative Ric Keller of Florida, a usually reliable Bush ally, said on the House floor Thursday night as he laid out his opposition to the troop buildup.

Representative Candice S. Miller, a party stalwart from Michigan, said in her response, "I am extremely hesitant to embrace the president's strategy at this point," citing the lack of a timetable for success.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate are still rallying to Mr. Bush. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, this week promised to vigorously fight Democratic efforts to bring up a resolution challenging the buildup even as he conceded the political damage the war has inflicted.

"I think the lack of progress in Iraq was the single biggest issue costing my party the House and the Senate," he said.

Mr. McConnell, one of those who was invited to Camp David this weekend, said they "discussed the need to find bold solutions for other big issues."

He and other Republicans believe their best chance is to keep the party as united as possible behind Mr. Bush in hopes of improving conditions in Iraq, while trying to maneuver Democrats into a position where they are caught between their opposition to the war and backing for troops.

It is not going to be easy. Republicans say the past election is looming large in the minds of lawmakers, with the next one looming even larger for some.

"People are probably still a little skittish from Nov. 7, and they are trying to sort through what the voters were telling us," Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a member of the Republican leadership, said. "Obviously people who are in re-election cycle, particularly in tough places in the country, are going to need a little flexibility."

The only comparable episode where Mr. Bush had encountered such rebellion in the ranks was over the administration's approval of a deal to turn over some American port operations to a Dubai company. The administration was forced to relent on that issue.

But Republican leaders have in the past been able to tamp down most discord, arguing that the fates of the president and Congressional Republicans were inextricably linked. And, particularly in the House, there was also a fear of retribution.

There were signs this week that the House Republican leadership was not going to tolerate too much dissension when two lawmakers known for challenging the party orthodoxy — Representatives Jeff Flake of Arizona, a critic of pork-barrel spending, and Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, a war opponent — were denied coveted committee slots.

And Republicans have been quietly building their own political case against Democrats, inserting policies popular with swing voters into their procedural alternatives, hoping to spring them later as 30-second advertisements.

Democrats have their own divisions, with some more liberal members of the party urging an aggressive push against spending on the Iraq war. Others view that as a political blunder that could threaten the majority. For now, the party seems willing to focus on symbolic votes against the buildup, leaving the money fight for later.

And leaving Republican leaders confronting the reality that nervous party members, uncertain of Mr. Bush's handling of the war and their own party's legislative appeal, are no longer so tightly bound to the cause.

"Everybody is scared spitless," Mr. Thune, the South Dakota senator, said.

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