House Republicans Bank on Conservative Base for Elections

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It's been a week in which House Republicans signaled their independence from President Bush and set a course for their November re-election campaigns. On immigration, voting rights, budget and spending issues, the House majority let it be known they're banking on their conservative base this fall.


One of the issues dividing Republicans in this Congress has been spending. Yesterday lawmakers considered a way to give the President power to cut back-spending, especially on earmarks. Those are special interest items that are often tucked into bills into the middle of the night. It was one of a number of actions House Republicans took this week with an eye to shoring up support from their base in advance of the November elections. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRYAN NAYLOR reporting:

It's not exactly a line item veto, which allowed Presidents to cancel spending programs unless the Congress voted to override the cuts. That was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Some Republicans call this bill line item veto light, but that's a bit of a misnomer. The measure lets the President X out spending he doesn't like, but if Congress insists, the President would have to acquiesce.

Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, the measure's sponsor, says it will still force members of Congress to make to tough choices.

Congressman PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): If somebody sticks a wasteful pork barrel project like a $50 million rain forest museum from Iowa, a bridge to nowhere or something like that in a bill in a conference report, where we as members of Congress have one choice, vote yes or no on the entire bill, then the President has a similar choice, sign or veto the entire bill, that's wrong. We ought to be able to vote on that $50 million rain forest museum. This gives us the chance to do that, and this means we can't duck those votes.

NAYLOR: Opponents argued Congress was yet again ceding its authority to the President. What's more, Democrat George Miller of California said it was ridiculous for Republicans to be proposing legislation as a method of self-restraint.

Congressman GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): You control all the mechanisms of spending, you control the House, you control the Senate, you control the presidency, and you need help before you spend again. What is this, Comedy Central?

NAYLOR: Republicans reminded Miller and other Democrats they'd voted for similar legislation in the past, and the bill was approved 247 to 172 with the help of 35 Democrats. The White House praised the measure, saying it will provide an important tool to reduce unjustified earmarks and wasteful spending.

The bill's prospects in the Senate are uncertain, but that may not matter to House Republican leaders who've demonstrated this week their intent to follow their own path independent of the Senate or the White House.

On Tuesday House leaders announced plans to hold hearings throughout the country this summer on immigration. The Senate and House have approved different bills. Most House republicans appose the Senate measure which would put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. House GOP members favor their approach, which focuses on border security and are happy, says House Majority Leader John Boehner, to point out what they see as the sins of the Senate bill.

House Majority Leader JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): While getting the bill finished quickly would have been preferable, there are just far too many issues in the Senate bill that I think are distasteful to most Americans, that I think require a little sunlight, a little discussion.

NAYLOR: House leaders also agreed to postpone for now action on renewal of the Voting Rights Act after some Southern members expressed concern over the measure. Rank and file members say all these actions indicate that House leaders are listening to their concerns and taking steps to reach out to the party's core conservative supporters.

Tennessee Republican Zach Wamp, who was first elected when Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, says that's what House GOP members want.

Congressman ZACH WAMP (Republican, Tennessee): The House is more conservative than the Senate and House Republicans, I think, are effectively charting our own agenda, which is more like going back to our roots, standing up for what we believe in, and I think that's good.

NAYLOR: Illinois Republican Ray Lohood says House GOP leaders are hearing that some rank and file members are nervous.

Congressman RAY LAHOOD (Republican, Illinois): Look at, this is an election year. There are now probably 35 or 40 incumbent members who are very concerned about the races that weren't concerned about them a year ago, for any number of reasons. Because of the war, because of this culture of corruption, because of the fact that it's an off-year, the President isn't that popular.

NAYLOR: Lahood says saving every incumbent is the top goal of GOP leaders in the House and that's what's driving the agenda.

Bryan NAYLOR, NPR News, The Capitol.

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