Weakened House GOP picks more conservative leaders

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 19, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Republicans in the House of Representatives on Wednesday gave their bloc a decidedly more conservative — and outspoken — tone, as they voted in new leaders who have reputations as sharp-edged partisans.

Ohio's John Boehner fought off a last-minute challenge by California's Dan Lungren for the minority leader post, but his new deputy will be Eric Cantor, a tough-talking Virginian who led this fall's fight to stall a financial rescue plan crafted by the White House, Democrats and Boehner loyalists.

The party's third-ranking House slot, conference chairman, went to Indiana's Mike Pence, a former radio talk-show host who had challenged Boehner for the leadership job two years ago and is a favorite of hard-line conservatives.

Democrats, too, signaled that they may be bracing for a shakeup, as longtime liberal gadfly Henry Waxman of California won the first round in his battle to unseat veteran Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell of Michigan.

Waxman won the endorsement of the House Steering and Policy Committee, a panel stacked with leadership loyalists, by a 25 to 22 vote. Waxman now needs the backing of the full Democratic caucus, which is expected to vote on Thursday.

Waxman's no shoo-in. Dingell, the House's most senior member, has built strong ties to members during his 53 years in Congress. However, a Waxman-led panel, which has broad power over energy, health care and regulatory issues, would smooth the path for President-elect Barack Obama.

Republicans still have committee slots to determine, too, and it's likely that they'll have a more conservative hue. GOP members sent a strong message in their leadership choices Wednesday that they plan to forge a new image of the Republican Party in the minds of voters.

"We need to get back to principles that the Republican Party has stood for," said Pence, "notably strong defense, limited government and strong moral values."

House minorities historically face a difficult task in getting much accomplished — or even being noticed. House rules make it hard for them to amend legislation, and since Democrats are likely to have a roughly 80-seat majority when the 111th Congress convenes on Jan. 6, "they don't have to consult with us anymore," said Florida Rep. John Mica, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The House GOP has experienced another problem in recent years: If its leaders cooperate too much with Democrats, their colleagues criticize them.

One key reason why Boehner was challenged, and still presides over a skeptical constituency, is that he's seen as too accommodating to Democrats. He worked with them in fashioning this fall's $700 billion rescue package.

"If nothing else, a lot of us wanted a change in personality. We thought Dan Lungren would be a more passionate advocate than John Boehner," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.

Such dissidents want Republicans to make it clear that Obama's a free-spending liberal, eager to raise taxes on the wealthy.

"We will be more aggressive. We'll remind people you don't raise taxes in a recession," said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif. Added Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., "we need clear delineations between our party and President Obama."

The differences in tone were clear after the caucus votes, as Boehner joined members of his leadership team for a joint news conference.

Boehner was conciliatory, saying, "Our job as a party is to find solutions," and pledging to work with Obama where the two sides could find common ground.

Pence offered a harder edge. "This is a time of renewal and regrouping," he said. "There's a clear understanding Republicans need to renew our commitment to the timeless principles of our party."

Democrats quietly chose their 111th Congress leadership team earlier this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California was backed for another term, and Connecticut's John Larson will become caucus chairman, succeeding Illinois' Rahm Emanuel, who'll become Obama's White House chief of staff.

A Democratic brawl, however, is looming Thursday between Waxman and Dingell.

Waxman is close to Pelosi, who's stayed officially neutral. A favorite of liberal and younger members, Waxman, 69, is considered far more sympathetic to environmental and consumer interests than Dingell, 82, the committee's top Democrat for 28 years and a longtime ally of the auto industry.

Dingell is expected to draw support from fiscal conservatives and moderates, as well as from the Congressional Black Caucus.

Not since 1996 have Democrats attempted to unseat a veteran chairman. That year, the leadership panel tried to topple Texas' Henry Gonzales as the Banking Committee's top Democrat, but the full caucus overturned the decision. That could happen Thursday, since Dingell has strong ties to many members, and has helped them with pet legislation and fundraising.

One wild card: Members of the incoming 111th Congress — including at least 32 new Democrats — will vote on the matter. Democrats will have at least 255 seats when the new Congress convenes in January, with five races undecided.

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