Congressional Republicans aim to present a united front
GOP base, party's losses hinder effort
Some GOP senators have sought to distance themselves from Rush Limbaugh's comments on Sonia Sotomayor. Some GOP senators have sought to distance themselves from Rush Limbaugh's comments on Sonia Sotomayor.
By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / June 5, 2009
WASHINGTON - Outnumbered by Democrats and out-shouted by personalities on the right flank of their party, congressional Republicans are struggling to present a unified front against a left-leaning agenda making marked progress on Capitol Hill.
Many GOP lawmakers are skeptical of racial preferences, and are eager to question Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor about her views on the issue. But highly charged rhetoric by a few conservative commentators - including the assertion, rescinded Wednesday, by former House speaker Newt Gingrich that Sotomayor is a "racist" - are frustrating efforts by Republicans senators to appear open and civil in their inquiry.
A key part of the GOP base - big business - has largely abandoned earlier fights against a healthcare overhaul and pollution emissions standards, undermining Republican efforts to thwart both pieces of legislation. And the party, too, is divided: some Republicans are working with Democrats on the healthcare package, while others are refusing to agree to any public health insurance plan.
And on legislation designed to slow climate change, GOP lawmakers are divided between those who say global warming is a myth, and those who believe the new standards would be damaging to business.
Neither the healthcare nor energy bills is assured final passage on Capitol Hill, and the Sotomayor nomination process is in its early stages. But as an opposition party, both GOP and Democratic analysts say, the Republicans are foundering - and President Obama and Democratic allies in Congress are setting the agenda.
"They've got the Republicans basically rope-a-doped. We're in the corner, and we're getting punched," said Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster. "There's never an opportunity here; they're kind of dividing and conquering," he added, making it difficult to "come together and launch a full-scale attack on any of them."
Obama has already poached one Republican, former Illinois congressman Ray LaHood, to be his transportation secretary. The president's nomination this week of Representative John McHugh of New York, a moderate Republican, to be secretary of the Army could deprive the House of another GOP member - and Democrats believe they have a good chance of taking the seat.
Peter Fenn, a Democratic consultant, said his party was on "suicide watch" for the GOP as the party - just four years ago in control of the House, Senate, and White House - continues to lose both congressional seats and legislative battles.
"They haven't just fallen on their sword; this is multiple, self-inflicted stab wounds," Fenn said. From a political perspective, "I'm licking my chops," he said.
"But in terms of democracy, of balance, in terms of good people in public office who are not extremists, this is not good," he said.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans are trying to remake their image, but are being drowned out by hard-core conservatives who rally the right flank of the party. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, for example, has been widely publicized for his comments comparing Sotomayor with a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan - making GOP senators wince as they insist they want a civil but thorough inquiry of the nominee.
"It's not good," Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said, referring to Limbaugh's remarks. "I think it's important to set a respectful tone."
Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, sought painfully to distance himself from such remarks, saying they do not represent the views of those who will vote on Sotomayor's nomination.
"People who feel strongly about it use strong language," Sessions said. "Those people out there are not party officials. They are not Republican officials."
Moderate Republicans blame their party for allowing its social conservative wing to dominate the dialogue, and often, the agenda. And while Democrats have expanded their breadth - electing a number of fairly conservative Democrats to Congress in the South and West - the GOP has lost seats, as its moderates have been pushed from the party, Fabrizio noted. New England now has no Republican members in the House.
"Every American is entitled to his or her opinion on the social agenda. But that shouldn't be the foundation of the Republican Party. It never has been," said former representative Charles Bass, a moderate New Hampshire Republican who lost his seat in the 2006 general election.
Representative Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican and a leading conservative voice in the House, said the party is rebuilding itself with a message of fiscal conservatism. He noted that no House Republicans voted for Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan - a distinction he said would impress voters in the 2010 elections. He blamed Democrats for painting the GOP as extremists by highlighting the heated rhetoric of a few commentators.
"I used to be a talk show host. I understand the difference between being an official, and being a talk show host," Pence said. "Both have a role to play. And I think most Americans know the difference."
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.