Bush must balance disparate GOP voices

W By Maura Reynolds and James Gerstenzang

wASHINGTON – Less than two weeks after the remarkable GOP victory in the congressional elections, President Bush and the hard-core conservatives who make up an important part of his support are butting heads.

During the lame-duck session of Congress that opened last week, Bush focused on two issues that appeal to Republican centrists: national security and the economy.

But these do not energize the party’s rock-ribbed conservatives. Abortion and school prayer are the social right’s kinds of issues. Then there is the dwindling number of moderate Republicans whose votes will be crucial and can’t be taken for granted.

The lame-duck session suggests that the tensions among the various components of the Republican coalition will pose risks for the president even after the new Congress, with both the House and the Senate narrowly in Republican control, takes office next year.

Bush “is going to have to work with conservative Republicans,” said K.B. Forbes, a Republican strategist and former aide to presidential candidates Patrick Buchanan and Steve Forbes. “They’re pivotal. Conservatives are on cloud nine.”

But at the same time, Forbes said, Bush has to “build the broad message” that will attract centrists and independents.

Some issues allow the president to appeal to many parts of the Republican spectrum at once. His proposal last week to subject as many as 850,000 government jobs below policy-making levels to competition from private contractors appealed to a broad range of Republicans for its claim of more efficient delivery of government services and its potential to undercut federal employee unions.

But as often as not, Bush must choose among the various wings of his party. The terrorism insurance bill last week provided one such occasion.

For economic reasons, Bush supports providing back-up government insurance for damage caused by terrorism. He argues that it will jump-start construction projects delayed by a lack of insurance.

Some conservatives, however, worry that the legislation could inspire a host of frivolous lawsuits and thus enrich one the nation’s trial lawyers, a group high on the conservatives’ enemies list.

Some conservatives in the House, led by Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, threatened to block the bill. Bush intervened and twisted arms, and the House passed the bill Thursday.

The lesson, observers say, is that the president can roll over the conservatives when he wants to.

Bush can “to a certain extent ignore the right,” said a senior GOP Senate aide, who spoke on condition on anonymity. “He’s the king of the Republican Party. Unlike his father, he has hardly any vulnerability to his right, which gives him maximum flexibility to move to the center.”

But the same day provided a countervailing example: the bankruptcy reform bill, which died early Thursday. Bush and business Republicans favored the bill, designed to limit the growing number of personal bankruptcies.

But at about 2 in the morning on Friday, social conservatives ambushed the bill over an abortion provision. They amended it to allow abortion protesters to declare bankruptcy as a means of avoiding fines levied against them for blocking access to abortion clinics during anti-abortion protests.

That left the bill in a form that the Senate, still in Democratic hands during the lame-duck session, would not pass. So the measure, which has accounted for considerable time and effort from the present Congress, will die when the lame-duck session concludes this week.

The lesson from the bankruptcy bill is that the president ignores the conservatives at his peril.

“What they did was send a message that, `We want to help you with your agenda, but don’t run over us roughshod,”‘ said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

“It’s a shot across the bow of the White House,” agreed Ross K. Baker, a political scientist and expert on Congress. “They really have to be careful that conservatives in the House aren’t so emboldened by the results of the election that they seriously over-reach.”

Bush bristles at the suggestion that he has a balancing act on his hands. “I don’t take cues from anybody,” he said in a news conference last week. “I just do what I think is right. That’s just the way I lead.”

But as Bush and his team look ahead to his 2004 re-election race, they are all too aware that divisions with social conservatives helped sink his father’s re-election bid in 1992.

As a result, Bush is thought likely to try to follow the model of another recent Republican president. Ronald Reagan publicly endorsed the conservatives’ social agenda but did little to implement it, instead focusing on tax cuts and other economic issues.

“It’s an approach that was successful for Reagan,” said Baker.

Conservatives say they will not try to do what they did in 1994, the last time they seized power in both houses of Congress. Then they tried to push a broad agenda of issues including abortion, school prayer and union-busting.

Keene says Republicans were unfamiliar with being in the majority and wanted to strike quickly, before they lost that status. Now, he said, Republicans seem to be cementing their majority status among the electorate and are consequently less impatient.

And there’s another big difference between 1994 and 2002, he said. In 1994, a Democrat (Bill Clinton) was president. Now Bush is, and conservatives are convinced that he’s on their side.

“Most of his attention is going to be on national security and the economy,” Keene said. “But I don’t think the president is going to slight the social right because of his own personal views. I very much doubt he is going to leave that part of his constituency out in the cold.”

But there are a number of issues on the horizon where the business and social wings of the Republican Party could find themselves at odds, including immigration and the curtailment of civil liberties as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Business Republicans worry that the social conservatives’ agenda could endanger centrist support for the issues nearest their hearts, like tax cuts. Jonathan Collegio of Americans for Tax Reform says that to maintain party unity, the social conservatives would be wise to focus first on the parts of their agenda that appeal to the center, such as outlawing late-term abortion and cloning.

“Since 1995, people in the conservative movement have grown up and they know you can’t get everything you want all at once,” he said. And the message the White House is sending them is: “As long as you’re patient, don’t get ahead of yourself and set reasonable goals and reasonable time limits, you can pass a lot of what you want.”