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House Moderates Try New Policy Strategy

When the welfare reauthorization bill hits the House floor today, Republican moderates will begin an unofficial strategy of quietly allowing the more conservative House leadership to quickly push through controversial measures that passed through the chamber last year.

Moderates feel they already fought last year for less stringent provisions in the welfare bill likely to pass today. So they say they are content to simply take a pass and hope the Senate’s slower nature will mute some of its effects.

“The final version that comes over from the Senate and goes to conference [committee] is what I’ll be looking at,” said Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a leading moderate. “I’ve never been particularly focused on things that just pass the House.”

It’s a strategy House GOP moderates, who have been frustrated by an inability to have their voices heard in recent years, say they will employ on many other issues — including the battle over President Bush’s $674 billion economic plan, an energy bill and possibly a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

“From the moderates I’ve talked to, they’re going to pick their battles a lot more,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.).

Given the political reality of the Republican trifecta, House GOP moderates believe this strategy will serve them well as leaders work quickly to repass several key domestic policy measures that languished in the Democratic-controlled Senate last year.

“We don’t want to give [the Senate] the excuse they had last year, which is that they didn’t have enough time” to consider all the House-passed bills, said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a moderate who defended his party’s leaders while acknowledging he hoped some measures would be modified from their hard-right stances once they reached a House-Senate conference committee.

It’s that prevailing attitude that makes House GOP moderates feel safe in standing down on some issues.

“Despite the change in control of the Senate, the Senate has a different philosophical fulcrum than the House. … It becomes a moderating influence,” said Rep. Jim Leach (Iowa), a regular member of the House GOP moderates’ so-called “Tuesday Group.”

Castle, nevertheless, said he was not pleased with the welfare reauthorization bill because he believes it does not adequately provide for people trying to transition from Medicaid to private health insurance nor provide the needed resources for job training.

Indeed, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said she was determined to make sure that the House version of the welfare bill did not make it into law, especially provisions requiring states to find more jobs for those on welfare as well as requiring those who get jobs to work more hours.

“We’ve got to get it right,” Snowe said. “Otherwise, we’re going to end up with requirements that are designed for failure.”

But Snowe said she doesn’t blame her House counterparts for not pushing harder in the early stages of the process, though she admits more input “would be helpful.”

Another GOP moderate, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), said she understands the problem faced by her counterparts in the House.

“It’s obviously more difficult in the House where the Rules Committee controls everything,” she said. “When there’s a moderate alternative to any particular bill, it’s very difficult for them to even offer it.”

Still, House GOP moderates were quick to point out that new policy conundrums that come before Congress this year are sure to get their full attention.

“The more controversial ones will receive the full vetting in committee,” said Upton. “It’s not like [the welfare bill] is a new issue.”

Still, standing by while House GOP leaders push through measures that are sure to cause problems and lengthy debates in the Senate does shift the heavy lifting to the other chamber, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) acknowledged.

“If we’re going to pass it over here, I think we do have to take into consideration that it puts more pressure on the Senate,” he said of the welfare measure.

Many House Republican moderates acknowledged that it would be easier to fight their own leadership if they were a more cohesive group.

Indeed, Snowe said she was having trouble setting up a meeting of House and Senate GOP moderates, where she hoped the group could talk about long-term strategic goals.

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