The Republicans Regroup

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U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN)

After taking a drubbing in this week's congressional elections, the G.O.P. has a plan: rediscovering the Spirit of 1994, the year when the Republicans pulled off their own historic retaking of Congress.

With House Speaker Dennis Hastert deciding to leave his post after the party's defeat, a fierce campaign is already under way for top slots in the House G.O.P. leadership for next year. The candidates have a lot in common — and not just because most of them are middle-aged white men. Nearly every member vying for party power in the new Congress is offering the same description of what ails Republicans and how it can be remedied. It goes something like this: "After 1994, we were a majority committed to balanced federal budgets, entitlement reform and advancing the principles of limited government. In recent years, our majority voted to expand the federal government's role in education, entitlements and pursued spending policies that created record deficits and national debt."

Those are the words of Mike Pence, the Indiana congressman who heads a group of the most conservative G.O.P. members, called the Republican Study Group, and is running to be the top Republican leader in the House. But John Boehner, the Ohio rep and current number two under Hastert who is running against Pence for that post, says he's the man to help Republicans restore the principles they embraced in 1994, since he was one of the authors of the original Contract with America. Joe Barton, a Texas member who currently is chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, is also considering the top job. Meanwhile John Shadegg, the Arizona congressman who wants the No. 2 job, Minority Whip, is playing up his reform credentials, noting he was elected in the famous freshman class of 1994 that won back the House for Republicans.

The closed-door leadership elections, scheduled for next Friday, will give a clue as to how badly the G.O.P. thinks it needs to reform itself. Boehner took over his post only in February after replacing the scandal-plagued former Majority Whip, Tom DeLay. So much of the spending many House conservatives hated, such as the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill that President Bush pushed them to approve, happened before Boehner was in the leadership. And Boehner is famous for having never asked for any wasteful pork-barrel projects for his own district, a stance many fiscal conservatives like. Missouri congressman Roy Blunt, who will face Shadegg in the race for Majority Leader, will have a more difficult task running a campaign as a change agent, since he's been in the House leadership for several years; in fact, he lost the race for Majority Leader to Boehner earlier this year primarily because he was viewed as a member of the old guard. Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, another member of the current G.O.P. leadership, is running for conference chairman and will face Tennessee's Marsha Blackburn and Florida's Adam Putnam.

A win by Pence, 47, for the top job would suggest a dramatic shift for House Republicans. While he would seek to move the G.O.P. back to the roots of the 1994 movement, he actually comes from a new generation of House Republicans, elected since 2000, who have never served in the minority. And the former conservative talk show host, who calls himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order," is closer to the conservative Christians who play a big role in G.O.P. politics than most of the current leadership. At the same time, he's been willing to look for compromises on some key issues, attempting earlier this year to fashion an immigration bill that would create a work visa program for illegal immigrants, which many conservatives thought didn't constitute "amnesty," the label they tagged to the Senate Republicans' guest worker bill.

While he's a polite, affable man, Pence has also been a bomb-thrower in much of his time in the House, leading his conservative members in calling for cuts in Medicaid and other programs that some moderate Republicans think could be electoral suicide. Of course, he and other like-minded Republicans will be able to argue, the G.O.P. could hardly do much worse than it did in this week's election.