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GOP Centrists Eye Central Role in a Divided House

Moderate Republicans are looking for ways to play a decisive role in ad hoc coalitions on divisive fiscal issues in the 113th Congress and devising survival strategies with constituent group allies for the coming 2014 elections.

The efforts are aimed at building on the voting blocs that helped push significant measures through the GOP-controlled House in the past month, despite the objections of conservatives.

Republican moderates including Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania say they are open to being part of bipartisan coalitions on some issues and are working with supporters to deal with any political fallout from their decision to support the contentious fiscal cliff agreement.

Dent, chairman of the moderate 45-member Tuesday Group, said he hoped to recruit new members to attend his weekly lunches. And he noted that centrists were encouraged by the work of a revamped support group, the Main Street Partnership, led by former Rep. Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio, who plans to help centrists deal with any blowback in their campaigns.

“They’ve been helpful. He’s going to be very active politically,” Dent said of LaTourette. “He’s got a keen sense of governance. He’s got good political instincts.”

As the partnership’s president and CEO, LaTourette has urged centrists to serve as the “governing wing of the Republican Party.” To support their efforts, he recently pushed for a significant name change, removing the word “Republican” from the partnership’s moniker.

“We need more voices in Washington willing to put the best interests of the American people above petty partisanship,” LaTourette said in a written statement.

The name change fits the plans that LaTourette and many centrists have for bipartisan deals in the 113th Congress. It also fits LaTourette’s vision for a possible super PAC, which must be independent of either party, to collect unlimited contributions and mount unlimited independent expenditures.

The super PAC would exist alongside a Main Street political action committee that raised $1.2 million and gave about $435,000 to congressional candidates in the 2012 election cycle.

The push to unify and energize centrist Republicans comes as they are positioned to provide potentially crucial swing votes for legislation aimed at resolving deeply partisan fiscal disputes in the opening weeks of the 113th Congress.

Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and his team have been vague about whether they would allow further exceptions to the “majority of the majority” rule — established by former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois — which bars floor action on bills without support of a majority of the Republican Congress.

Exceptions to the rule found centrist Republicans voting with Democrats to clear the fiscal cliff agreement 257-167 on Jan. 1 and to pass 241-180 a contentious $50.5 billion Superstorm Sandy aid bill Tuesday. In each case, a majority of Republicans voted against the measures.

Hastert said in an interview that he doubted such floor tactics would be used on many occasions. “If you operate that way, you lose control of the agenda,” he said.

But Ronald M. Peters Jr., a political scientist at the University of Oklahoma, said he believed Boehner would have the leeway to make an exception on a proposal to raise the debt limit on the grounds that inaction could spark a drop in the financial markets.

“If he thinks it’s something that must be done because it’s in the public interest, I think he’ll allow the vote,” Peters said. But he predicted that Boehner and his team would take a tougher line on the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution expiring March 27 and automatic spending cuts set to take effect March 1 under the 2011 debt deal.

With an eye on the debt limit fight, Dent said moderates are working to develop priorities on the deficit, spending cuts and a possible tax overhaul. But lawmakers are also wary of attacks from conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and tea party activists that opposed the fiscal cliff deal. Some pointed to a ruling by Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, that the deal did not violate the no-new-taxes pledge administered by his group as helpful to them in voting for the fiscal cliff agreement.

LaTourette said he and other centrist Republicans were “committed to reaching out to fair-minded members of the Democratic Party. We understand that bipartisan compromise — by its very definition — means working with members of the other party.”

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