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Moderates: Using Speaker List as Leverage

Bolstered by a high-profile lineup of centrist speakers at the GOP convention, moderate Republicans say they hope to leverage their newfound prominence into legislative power in Congress.

Several moderate lawmakers said they plan to remind their conservative Congressional leaders that the Bush-Cheney campaign tapped such moderates as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and New York Gov. George Pataki to speak in prime time because their policies were believed to be broadly popular.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), president of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, said GOP leaders need to “make the link that the people they’re designating to speak are moderates who appeal to most Americans.”

Other centrists agreed. “Moderates wouldn’t be headlining if it weren’t for the fact that it helps the campaign [of President Bush] and reflects the views of most Americans,” said Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.). “I do think it’ll help down the road when we’re making our case” to the Congressional leadership.

And Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), one of a handful of House moderates who are retiring at the end of this Congress, noted, “I think we’ve got to be careful that we translate our moderation into legislation.”

Although Congressional moderates were involved in the passage of Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill, campaign-finance reform and the Medicare drug benefit, centrists in both chambers have recently clashed with their conservative leaders over social policy, tax cuts and recent growth in the deficit.

In many of those battles, especially in the House, conservatives have strong-armed moderates into either going along with the official party position or muting their criticism.

As recently as last week’s Republican platform-committee debates, conservatives beat back attempts by moderates to broaden federal funding guidelines for stem-cell research. Conservatives also succeeded in adopting platform language — over the objections of moderates — that not only embraces Bush’s support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage but also, for the first time, explicitly opposes allowing gay couples to enter into civil unions.

Further reflecting the anti-moderate backlash, Randall Terry, founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, lashed out at the moderate speaking roster Monday, saying it includes too many people who support abortion rights.

Terry said that if politicians like Schwarzenegger and Giuliani “become the new poster boys of the GOP, the political agenda of the pro-life movement will be driven into exile.” He added that choosing abortion rights supporters to speak “is mere appeasement to those who slay the innocent.”

That kind of rhetoric leads moderates and even some conservatives to warn that too much attention to legislative priorities of the religious right will make it harder to retain a majority in both chambers of Congress.

“If Republicans keep banking on the South and social conservatives, they’re not going to be the majority party for much longer,” said a Congressional aide to a centrist Republican. “There’s going to have to be some realigning for the GOP … for the health of the party.”

Even former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), a self-described conservative, agreed.

“We can sustain a center-right majority,” said Gingrich, who was elected to the Speakership with significant moderate support. “It is impossible to create a right-only majority.”

All the more reason, some centrists say, to start fighting back before the party chooses new leadership in 2006. That’s when conservative Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said he will retire, and just two years before Republicans will pick a new presidential nominee.

“Social moderates haven’t done the work they need to do to stake their ground in this party, and as a result, the party has been hijacked” by religious conservatives, said Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, the leading group for gay Republicans.

Others, though, are more optimistic about the clout they can wield.

“Elect a moderate Republican like me, and we will moderate that [conservative] position every day of the year,” said Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.). “We hope by demonstrating our viability in the party we’ll attract more candidates.”

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) agreed. “Sure, we’d all like a larger slice,” he said. “But our voices are heard.”

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