After suffering the typical indignities of life in the minority for nine months, House Republicans enjoyed a rare moment of relevance last week when they showed they could take a tough vote to block the expansion of a popular children’s health care program.
The bill passed 265-159, but the 151 Republican votes against the measure were enough to uphold President Bush’s promised veto.
House GOP leaders see the vote as a watershed that should compel Democrats to grant them a seat at the table on future bills, from energy to appropriations. And while Democrats say the vote against such a popular program exposes Republicans to the wrath of voters, conservatives believe the stand will repair relations with a base that had grown disenchanted with Republicans backing big new spending programs.
“It sends a message to the Democrats that as long as there is a Republican president they need to deal with Republicans,” House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said. Showing that they are “not going to just go along with the title of a bill allows us to be in the debate,” he added.
The SCHIP vote “was the biggest Republican floor success since the passage of the Deficit Reduction Act,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a leading conservative, referring to last year’s budget-cutting package. “I think it sets the table very well for the spending battles in the months ahead. … If they actually want to pass some bills that the president signs now they know … we have to be at the table.”
House Republicans had complained almost as loudly about being shut out of the negotiations that occurred between House and Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans as they did about the specifics of the bill.
Senate Republicans have been more likely to break with the president and negotiate with Democrats, in part because the Senate always requires bipartisanship to move anything past a filibuster, and in part because so many Senate Republicans are up for re-election next year.
In addition, newly empowered House Democrats, after years of living under the foot of Tom DeLay and company, have ruled the House with a firm hand and little desire for compromise.
But now that House Republicans — the majority of whom represent safe GOP districts — have shown that they can be the muscle behind a presidential veto threat, GOP leaders are asserting they have to be in the room when deals are cut.
The potential for detente may be delayed, however, as long as Democrats feel that it is to their political advantage to paint Republicans as uncaring Neanderthals who favor tobacco companies and war over the welfare of children.
“The Republicans are going to have to deal with the American public,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “Sixty-nine Senators just voted for this bill.” The final vote for the SCHIP bill in the Senate was 67-27.
Hoyer added, “Asking for $200 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan and vetoing $35 billion for children’s health care is not America’s priority.”
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, predicted that the fight would tar all Republicans, regardless of whether they voted for the children’s health care legislation. “The president’s veto will hurt Republican Members collectively,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to separate themselves from the president.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Friday that GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) has been lobbying Republican House Members to support the bill. She also said she told Bush in a Friday conference call that she was “praying he would reconsider his decision” to veto the bill. She said Bush responded, “I’m sorry your prayers haven’t been answered.”
Conservative House Republicans showed no signs of folding late last week.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, ripped SCHIP as “the single worst piece of legislation to come to the floor,” and said conservative voters should be energized.
“They want to see the Republican Party stand for limited government, freedom, quality and affordable health care — and they want to see us fight, and that’s what they saw this week,” Hensarling said.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), ranking member of the Budget Committee, applauded the SCHIP vote but said he and other conservatives need to work together to develop a realistic plan for dealing with the uninsured.
“I think this is sort of getting back to core principles, but the next stage is conservatives need to come up with an answer for the uninsured or else they can’t claim to be part of the debate.”
Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.