Raising A Ruckus In The House

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Is there an insurrection brewing in the House? George W. Bush thought he could count on his friends there; he thought the place he'd have trouble keeping Republicans together was the evenly divided Senate, where moderates of his party seemed prone to side with Democrats to thwart legislation he wants. It seemed a safe bet that House G.O.P. leaders would be able to keep Republican Congressmen in line and steamroller his bills through that chamber.

But nothing's easy anymore. Two weeks ago, 19 moderate Republican Congressmen gave House Speaker Dennis Hastert a procedural slap in the face, voting against a rule his lieutenants had crafted to consider campaign-finance reform on the floor. The mods complained the rule made it harder to pass the measure. Last week more than half a dozen mods threatened another procedural challenge to sink Bush's faith-based initiative, which gives religious charities a larger role in government social programs. The bill finally passed 233 to 198, but only after the G.O.P. rebels were assured by their leaders that a provision they think discriminates against minorities would be watered down. This week G.O.P. moderates will be a key swing vote in the patients' bill of rights House Democrats want to pass. Some have also warned Bush they will battle him if he tries to cut federal funds for stem-cell research. You can now call them the "extreme moderates," says one of their leaders, Amo Houghton of New York, who three years ago organized the Republican Main Street Partnership, a coalition of about 50 House G.O.P. centrists who have been making the recent trouble.

The mods are a loosely organized group of mainly Northeast and Midwest G.O.P. Representatives who don't always speak with one voice. Most of the time they like to stay below the radar, working behind closed doors to form shifting alliances and hatch compromises. But lately, many have begun flexing their muscles and challenging Bush head-on. Connecticut's Chris Shays, for example, has been aggressively pushing the campaign-finance-reform bill that Bush opposes. Greg Ganske of Iowa is a key Republican sponsor of the Democrats' patients' bill of rights that Bush can't stand.

Why are House mods becoming rambunctious? "They're getting McCainized," gripes a senior G.O.P. aide. Republican Senator John McCain, by forcing party leaders to deal with him on campaign reform, has shown "how one person can screw everything up to get his way. So they think they can act like that too," the aide says. But moderates are also frustrated that they "haven't been at the table" when the House's conservative G.O.P. leaders craft bills, says Representative Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican. "We're always brought in at the end and dragged along." The mods believe their point of view "is shared by the vast majority of this country's voters," says Delaware G.O.P. Representative Mike Castle. Bush campaigned as a centrist but has veered right since taking office, Castle says, so moderates are now trying to pull him back "into the middle."

Can they succeed? With Republicans holding a mere six-seat edge in the House, Hastert realizes he must pay attention. So does Bush, who's having top aides meet with the Main Street Republicans this week. The House mods aren't running the show, but they're getting closer to the table.