Centrists also rebel against GOP leaders

House Republican leaders have been sparring for most of this year with the conservative wing of the party, but an increasingly restless group of centrists is presenting them with a new headache.

Soon after Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) stepped down as majority leader last month, House leaders brought two energy and environmental bills to the floor that triggered strong objections from centrists.

One of them — the Gasoline for America’s Security Act — passed 212-210 last week, but only after leaders kept the roll-call vote open for more than 40 minutes as they scrambled for votes. Thirteen Republicans, most of them centrists, opposed the bill. But in a move more telling of angst in the conference, five centrists opposed the rule allowing the measure to be considered on the floor. 

House leadership on both sides of the aisle view votes on rules as tests of party loyalty and have clearly communicated to members that they are expected to vote with their party on these roll calls.

The rebellion of the five on the gasoline-bill rule was the biggest against any rule in the 109th Congress and the first time that a chairman — Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee — had broken ranks. Most rule votes, even for controversial bills such as the one that called for consideration of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), fall along strict party lines.

Boehlert was so opposed to the gasoline measure that he circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter blasting the legislation, saying it would increase the deficit, harm the environment and “give charity to the oil companies while doing virtually nothing to help consumers.”

The other Republican lawmakers who rejected the rule were Reps. Mike Castle (Del.), Jim Leach (Iowa), Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Timothy Johnson (Ill.). For Boehlert, Castle and Johnson, it was the first time they had registered a vote against a rule bringing a bill to the floor in 2005.

Boehlert and other centrists sent a letter to the House Rules Committee calling for a vote on his amendment that would increase corporate average fuel-economy (CAFE) standards. The letter stated, “Fairness dictates that a serious amendment on fuel-economy standards be part of the debate about how the nation should ensure that gasoline remains affordable and accessible.”

The Rules Committee did not allow a vote on the Boehlert amendment, prompting frustration among the staffs of lawmakers who voted against the rule.

A House GOP leadership aide acknowledged that the legislation “was rushed a bit, and you saw the results on the floor.” The staffer said speed was essential because of the energy needs of the Gulf Coast and noted that the House has already voted on, and rejected, a CAFE bill this year.

Others say speed was not vital because the Senate has no plans to take up a companion bill.

Conservative members have been pressing their House leaders to come up with significant spending offsets to pay for rebuilding in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. With the Republican Conference in turmoil after DeLay’s indictment, House leaders have proposed across-the-board spending cuts to appease the conservative Republican Study Committee.

But with a narrow majority, House leaders have a challenging task. If they appease conservatives too much, centrists will likely object, and vice versa. Leadership is being squeezed from both sides.

After the 212-210 vote Friday, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said, “The Republican leadership just made a significant number of moderate Republicans vote for one of the most anti-environmental bills in the history of the United States.”

He added that House GOP leaders will soon be asking that same group to vote for a budget-reconciliation package that will significantly cut Medicaid and call for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Markey asked, “With the president at a 37 percent job approval rating, how long can [moderate Republicans] go before their political careers are put in jeopardy?” 

On Sept. 29, 34 Republicans voted against House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo’s (R-Calif.) bill that sought to revamp the Endangered Species Act. Boehlert and many other centrists rejected the legislation, which passed 229-193.

Moreover, 29 Republicans voted for the Democratic alternative to Pombo’s bill. That measure, sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), narrowly failed, 206-216.

Meanwhile, Boehlert and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) have been engaged in a public dispute over global-warming issues. Barton is the sponsor of the gasoline bill that passed last week. The legislation seeks to lower gasoline prices by expanding refinery capacity.

Politically vulnerable Republican members who backed Barton’s bill include Reps. Jim Gerlach (Pa.), Rob Simmons (Conn.) and Mike Sodrel (Ind.).