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Republican Party shows cracks after moderates' show of force

WASHINGTON—Fault lines in the Republican coalition are threatening the party's fabled unity, forcing it to choose between a bruising purge of independent-minded dissidents or accommodating their views on such issues as federal judges and Social Security.

Long-simmering tensions in the party burst into public this week with a double-play show of force by moderates against the conservatives who rule the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House.

Republican moderates pushed through a House vote in defiance of President Bush and House leaders to expand federal financing for stem-cell research using human embryos. Others brokered a Senate deal that allowed some of Bush's judicial nominees to get confirmed but left Democrats with the power to block others.

The reasons for the maverick moderates' sudden success are numerous. They recognize that polls show Washington gridlock is turning off many Americans. The intervention by Congress and Bush into the Terri Schiavo case also backfired with the public. And a pending vacuum of GOP leadership is prompting unusually early maneuvering for the Republican 2008 presidential nomination, dividing their camp.

Whatever the reasons behind the moderates' success, one result is clear: The party must deal with them, one way or another. Failure to do so effectively could stall the Republican agenda and cost the party at the ballot box in 2006 and beyond. The right moves could re-energize the party, help pass a wave of legislation and help cement the Republicans' hold on power for years.

Many conservatives believe the answer is to push moderates back into line or out of office.

"We share the disappointment, outrage and sense of abandonment felt by millions of conservative Americans who helped put Republicans in power last November," said James Dobson, an influential religious activist, in a statement after the Senate deal. "I am certain that these voters will remember both Democrats and Republicans who betrayed their trust."

Three of the Senate moderates face re-election next year: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Chafee is most vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right, probably from Stephen Laffey, the mayor of Cranston, R.I.

But the first test could be a collateral one: DeWine's son faces a June 14 Republican primary in Ohio for an open House seat in a solidly Republican district.

"He might want to change his name," said David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union. Local conservatives said the younger DeWine will be tainted by his father's breach with Bush on judges.

As interest groups and radio talk-show hosts clamor for political punishment, history suggests the White House will be more pragmatic.

Last year, Bush sided with Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania when Specter faced a well-financed Republican primary challenge from conservative Pat Toomey. This week, Bush's hand-picked chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, had kind words for Chafee during a Rhode Island dinner.

Keene said it's natural for a governing coalition to experience stresses and strains.

One key reason they're appearing now, he said, is because Bush will not run again and Vice President Dick Cheney flatly rules out running himself. That opens the door to early jockeying for the 2008 presidential nomination to lead the post-Bush party.

The Senate fight over judges was influenced by several potential 2008 GOP candidates, including Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the majority leader who was out-maneuvered by maverick moderates, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was instrumental in forging their bipartisan coalition.

Another reason, Keene said, is that expanded majorities give Republicans the "luxury" of more-open debates than they could have when they had smaller majorities and more need for lockstep unity.

"You're going to have these debates, particularly now that Republicans have become the governing coalition," Keene said.

"In American history, the real debates don't take place between the parties, but within the governing party," he added, citing analyst Samuel Lubell. "The modern example is Social Security, which is essentially being debated within the Republican Party."

Moderates argue that they want to be part of that Republican debate—and that expelling them would turn the governing party into the out party.

Led by Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., House moderates put together a bipartisan coalition that won approval of the stem-cell proposal, though it still faces a likely veto from Bush.

Moderates also hope to influence legislation shoring up Social Security, expanding trade with Central America and restoring budget rules that require new federal spending to be offset with other spending cuts or tax increases.

They insist they are too numerous to ignore. The Republican Main Street Partnership, which stands for moderate social polices and conservative fiscal polices, includes 11 senators, 49 House members and five governors, for example.

Moderates think they are best able to win in their districts or states, many of them in the more liberal Northeast or West Coast, than are conservatives.

"This is a big-tent party," said Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, the executive director of the partnership. "Without us in the tent, they don't have a majority."


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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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