Republicans look for ways to reverse declining fortunes

For the Republicans who run Congress, it may be time to think inside the box.

Toward the end of a year in which so many external forces chipped away at their agenda _ the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, two Supreme Court vacancies _ leaders now face a challenge of how to manage curveballs inside their ranks.

Republican lawmakers have bucked their leadership on several recent votes, as they weigh midterm elections in 2006, low voter regard for President Bush and indicted ex-Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and an interim House leadership team considered less punitive or in command than when DeLay was in charge.

Democrats, while still firmly in the minority, are emboldened, analysts say, and Republicans may feel they have a bit less to lose when they say “no” to their leaders.

“It’s all happening simultaneously,” said Charlie Cook, who analyzes congressional, gubernatorial and presidential campaigns in his nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “In a first term, there’s a great desire to hold ranks. But when you get into a second term, there’s a, ‘The president’s name is never going to appear on a ballot again, but mine is.’ It’s the feeling of every man for himself. You’ve got to save your own skin. People are more likely to break ranks.”

This reality will confront congressional leaders next month when they return from a long Thanksgiving recess to address unfinished spending issues. It could flare up again early next year, if DeLay, who was charged in an alleged campaign finance scheme, remains out of power and the interim leader, Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, is challenged in a leadership election.

Over the course of next year, with all House members and one-third of the Senate up for re-election, it could play out in the form of more bipartisan responses to the war and a broad range of policy debates over immigration, tax reform or stem cell research.

It’s already under way.

Before lawmakers recessed for Thanksgiving, House Republicans voted decisively to reject their own negotiators’ compromise with the Senate on a labor, health and education appropriations bill that set $142.5 billion in discretionary spending. House leaders did usher through a budget reconciliation with $49.5 billion in cuts, but with just a two-vote margin, well past midnight and only after fiscal conservatives agreed reduce impacts to programs such as food stamps and heating subsidies, in which cuts might be used against representatives of moderate districts next year. Leaders also had to drop a provision allowing oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and hope to work it back in later.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans via a $491 billion defense spending bill joined with minority Democrats to use their purse strings to try to rein in the White House on the Iraq war. Senators this month voted 79-19 to call next year a “period of significant transition” in Iraq and call for more progress reports.

Republicans did not back withdrawal language some Democrats wanted, and critics pointed out there is little substance to what they did approve. But Democrats interpreted the vote as more recognition the war has become a political liability for the GOP.

In October, the Senate voted 90-9 for an amendment by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., banning certain detainee interrogations techniques considered cruel or degrading. The president has threatened to veto such language if the House adopts it.

Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., said votes that seem to rebuke GOP leaders are often more complicated.

“People would point to the vote on the McCain amendment,” he said. “I don’t think that had a lot to do with the president specifically or even the tone of the war. If anything, it had to do with concerns raised by what happened at Abu Ghraib and by the general uncertainty of treatment at Guantanamo.”

Some Republicans want to show war-weary voters they’re thinking about how to make the United States less intertwined with the fortunes of the Middle East. The week before they recessed, four Republicans including Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman joined Democrats in announcing legislation to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil by improving automobile fuel efficiency.

A bipartisan mix of conservative, moderate and liberal senators, meanwhile, delayed a vote to extend the Patriot Act, anti-terrorism legislation passed soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, that gives the government broad surveillance powers over individuals. The GOP holdouts have concerns that time extensions of the anti-terrorism legislation are too long, and that the government would have too much unchecked power to spy on Americans who don’t pose terror threats. Several House Republicans also are critical but a filibuster, which some GOP critics are threatening, could only be waged in the Senate.

Several said they don’t see the Patriot Act fight as an example of Republicans taking advantage of a weaker leadership because they were outspoken about their concerns when GOP leaders were stronger.

“The president’s numbers and what’s happening with DeLay have nothing to do with where I’m at on the Patriot Act,” said Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who won’t face re-election until 2010. “You’ve got real conservative, NRA members, joining hands with members of the ACLU. As Americans we have certain expectations about our rights to privacy.”