House GOP braces for Iraq floor debate

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) met yesterday with President Bush at the White House to discuss a number of topics, including an upcoming floor debate on Iraq.

While Hastert and the administration have been at odds on the recent raid of Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) congressional office, the White House has been supportive of House efforts to debate the war, leadership aides said.

The debate is expected to encompass one day next week but Republican leaders have not yet finalized the language of the resolution. The measure is expected to tie the war to an overarching effort to fight terrorism in the U.S. and abroad.

The war has grown increasingly unpopular since Bush formally declared an end to “major combat” in Iraq in May 2003. Republican leaders are confident that the debate would play in their favor.

“I think we have good things to say,” Hastert said yesterday about the upcoming debate.

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has noted that 60 percent of House Democrats voted against the use of force in 2002. Many in her caucus who voted yes regret that vote and some Republicans also have changed their positions on the war in the past several years.

Citing Iraq’s recently convened parliament, the Speaker, who visited the country during last week’s recess, said Republicans need an opportunity to make their case to voters about what he sees as positive progress on the ground.

“That’s not only good for us, it’s good for the Middle East and the world,” Hastert said.

“We need to remind the American people why we’re there and to get members on record being for the war on terror or against it,” Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said.

The president’s low poll numbers make him more reliant on House leaders than they are of him, even though he has raised significant money for Republican candidates on the campaign trail.

During their meeting yesterday, Hastert and Bush also discussed immigration reform and the emergency supplemental spending bill to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Gulf Coast cleanup efforts.

How ever the Iraq debate plays politically, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill face a distinct challenge in unifying the party during such a difficult and desperate stretch.

In his farewell address to Republican colleagues yesterday, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told GOP lawmakers they could pick up seats if they remain united during this election year. But that might be a daunting task for leaders as they try to strike a balance between the needs of vulnerable members and the desire for bold legislation to realize some of the dramatic changes that DeLay recommended.

In a fight that had not yet been resolved as of press time yesterday, Republican leaders and the White House were working hard against a bill on the suspension calendar to reinitiate negotiations between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the air traffic controllers union. Under current law, the union would have to accept terms set forth by the FAA after those negotiations hit a formal stalemate in April of this year.

GOP leaders were working against the bill despite strong support from 79 labor-friendly Republican lawmakers, who are co-sponsors of a similar, corresponding bill. Leadership scheduled the vote despite the administration’s strong opposition to the legislation because there was a chance that enough Republicans would sign on to a discharge petition to force a floor vote, members and aides said yesterday.

“This was a bad bill and a bad policy that was put on the suspension calendar by leadership in order to put a stake through it,” one senior leadership aide wrote in an e-mail. “Putting it on the suspension calendar raised the threshold of votes needed to pass and gave us a better chance of defeating it.”

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told Republican lawmakers during their weekly closed-door meeting yesterday that he opposed the bill and then introduced Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), one of his close friends, who stood in support of the legislation.

Boehner and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to Republicans in the House yesterday explaining their views on the bill.

“I think they gave us the vote because there are 79 Republican co-sponsors,” LaTourette said. “The fact of the matter is that this group played by the rules. The leadership was respecting that.”

Leaders are also trying to advance other legislative initiatives to position themselves as an active party despite low poll numbers that give them limited political capital with voters nationwide.

As part of this effort, Republican leaders are considering legislation to abolish the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), an effort Hastert embraced in his autobiography.

The discussions are premature, GOP aides said yesterday, but Republican Policy Committee Chairman Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) released a set of five reform proposals yesterday that included a plan by Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) to abolish the IRS. Linder met with leaders during their regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday to discuss specifics of his plan.