Analysis: Cracks in the GOP power facade

Although the Republican leadership in the House and Senate has been emboldened by the gains made in the Nov. 2 election, cracks are begging to show in the veneer of party invulnerability that GOP leaders sought to promote over the last two weeks.

As Republicans move to protect their own from outside attacks and potential legal problems while setting their conservative agenda in motion, signs of potential problems in the 109th Congress have been seen over the last couple of days.

House Republicans, who have near absolute control over the body already and are facing a further strengthening with more seats next year, approved a change in their rules Wednesday aimed at protecting the position of Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, should he be indicted.

An ongoing criminal investigation into the political activities of a political action group founded by DeLay by Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle has led to the indictment of three of DeLay's political associates and raised the specter of him being the ultimate target of the investigation.

The conservative Texan has denied any wrongdoing in the matter and has not been questioned by the grand jury or prosecutors in the case.

Under existing House rules, DeLay or any GOP leader would be required to leave a leadership position if indicted on charges that carry a potential sentence of two or more years in prison.

Decried by House Democrats, the changes made protect party leaders from having to automatically leave their posts if indicted on state-level charges, leaving the rule in place solely for federal charges.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California criticized the proposed rule change as a reconfirmation that Republicans do not care if their leaders are ethical, but the author of the original proposal, Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, defended the move as needed to protect GOP leaders.

"We are trying to protect the members of our leadership from any crackpot district attorney in any state in the nation," Bonilla told reporters Wednesday.

But not all House Republicans backed the move. Moderate Republican Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut said the move reflected a slipping of Republicans into acceptance of the practices seen for years under the Democratic majority.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland echoed Shays' criticism, noting that Republicans came to power a decade ago at least partially on their attacks against Democratic corruption.

"Today, Republicans sold their collective soul to maintain their grip on power," said Hoyer. "They unabashedly abandoned any pretense of holding themselves to a high ethical standard by deciding to ignore criminal indictments of their leaders as reason for removal from leadership posts in the Republican Party."

In the Senate the problems for the GOP are much more severe.

The bid by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to head the Judiciary Committee has shown that the GOP leadership is facing a tough time balancing the moderates within their caucus with the conservative agenda the party leadership has embraced.

The election has only emboldened the spirit of the conservatives leading the party on Capitol Hill, but much of that agenda is at odds with at least some in the party.

The moderate Pennsylvanian is in line for the Judiciary chair but has faced an onslaught of criticism from social conservative interests opposed to his taking the position.

Pro-abortion rights, Specter has long been viewed with skepticism by social conservatives, but it was comments two weeks ago largely interpreted as a warning to President Bush not to nominate anti-abortion rights candidates for the federal bench that led conservative activists to inundate GOP lawmakers with pleas to dump him.

After two days of meetings with Republican colleagues in which he made his case and promised to ensure that all of Bush's nominees get a fair vote, Specter seems to have survived the attacks.

But some conservative lawmakers have also pushed him to publicly embrace a GOP proposal to change Senate rules so filibusters would not apply to judicial nominees.

Specter has received the support of key senators, including the outgoing chairman of the panel, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and is expected to ultimately gain approval from the caucus. Other Senate GOP leaders, however, including Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Conference Chairman Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, have refused to say publicly if they back Specter.

Frist told reporters Wednesday that Specter answered all questions posed to him by concerned GOP members as he made his case in multiple closed-door meetings over the last two days.

"They (his answers) were received very well by the members of the caucus," said Frist.

If Specter does gain the chairmanship, it will not be without compromise to the wishes of conservatives dominating the Senate, a fact reflected in the public statement he is expected to make acknowledging his commitment to let Bush's judicial nominees receive floor votes.

The power of the conservative Senate Republicans was further confirmed Wednesday with the adoption of caucus rule that allows Frist to appoint as many as half of all GOP members to fill vacancies on top committees.

The conference approved the rule change by a one-vote margin. It would replace rules whereby committee membership was based on seniority in the body.

The changes were opposed by more moderate members in the conferences, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who fear that conservatives will use it to sideline and punish members who do not fall into the party line.

On some key GOP policy goals, Senate Democrats are expected to create problems, but the real hurdles could come from within the Republican Party given the lack of consensus on how best to move forward on some issues.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Tuesday that comprehensive tax reform -- a chief policy goal of the Bush administration and GOP leadership in Congress -- would be "difficult" to achieve, describing it as an effort to tilt at windmills that he was not inclined to embrace.

Grassley, a tax-reform proponent, said that Bush missed an opportunity to make his case and convince the public that reform was needed during the election.

He also advocated a more incremental approach to reform than called for by Bush, signaling that he would go forward with his own efforts in the new year.

Democrats are prepared to question Bush's more controversial Cabinet nominees, including national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to replace outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to replace outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft, but are not expected to attempt to block any of Bush's new Cabinet picks.

Instead, they are expected to save their political energy to stop what many feel will be as many as three highly conservative Bush administration nominees for the Supreme Court.

Republicans have attacked Democrats as obstructionists for the past two years in response to their efforts to filibuster Bush's judicial nominees, although only 10 of the most conservative choices were blocked and the vast majority approved.

Frist has spent the last two weeks lobbing warning shots at Democrats on the issue and has vowed not allow the filibuster of any more nominees. To that end, Frist has approved a plan to change Senate rules to make judicial nominees not subject to the filibuster, but he said that no decision had been made on whether to use the option.

However, the chief deputy majority whip, Robert F. Bennett of Utah, said such a move would be taken only if Democrats filibuster a Supreme Court nomination.

Democratic aides dismissed the talk of the GOP's so-called nuclear option as simply threats meant to keep Democrats from being bold on the issue because Republicans recognize they do not have the votes to overcome a filibuster.

In addition, getting the change approved is not guaranteed, even with their 55-member majority, because several moderate and veteran Republican lawmakers could revolt on the issue.

Indeed, some GOP leaders are said to oppose the move because it would likely bring the Senate to a partisan standstill and because it could mean stark retaliation if Democrats take back control of the body.

In addition, Republicans have to realize that there are other procedural maneuvers that Democrats can use to ensure that a controversial nominee does not receive a final vote on the floor of the Senate other than the fact that Senate rules do not allow the interruption of a speaking senator without consent.

Even if the move is not taken, there are signs that the rank partisanship that has defined the Senate for the last year will continue.

While both sides have upped the partisan rhetoric in recent days, Republicans on Capitol Hill and Bush have be particularly fond of talking up their wishes to make politics in the United States more civil.

But at the same time, GOP leaders have stressed their strong majority perception of an election-based conservative mandate and Democrats' obstructionism, particularly on the judicial-nominee issue.

Majority Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sought to downplay the spirit driving the GOP leadership at a news conference Wednesday only to be followed by an attack from newly elected National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina on outgoing Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., for stalling GOP policy priorities over the last year.

"This conference is not suffering from hubris," said McConnell. "We have increased our numbers, but we know 55 is not 60."

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