Last August, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) faced an insurrection. A cadre of Republican moderates, led by Representative Sherwood L. Boehlert of New York, was threatening to block GOP plans to slash spending for Labor Dept. job training and to kill heating-bill subsidies for the poor. "I know you are unhappy," Gingrich told the rebels in a private meeting, recalls Boehlert. Then, Gingrich conceded that passage of the appropriations measure didn't have a chance without their backing. Gingrich hinted he would push for more funding. With that, the moderates fell back in line. Now, the final bill seems likely to preserve heating aid and some job training for at least another year.
While a noisy group of far-right freshmen has been getting all the attention, a quiet but persistent bloc of about 30 centrist Republicans has been surprisingly successful at actually getting things accomplished. Although they remain a minority within the strongly conservative House GOP caucus, the moderates have emerged as a critical swing bloc. The key to their leverage: threatening to team up with the 197 Democratic members to rein in the Republican revolutionaries.
The bloc's proudest achievement is a series of environmental victories in 1995 that thwarted GOP hard-liner attempts to junk clean-water laws and curb Environmental Protection Agency enforcement powers. "The moderates have really been sticking their necks out," says Paul Brotherton, research director of the League of Conservation Voters. "They've helped tremendously in stemming huge [environmental] losses."
The triumphs don't end there. The moderate bloc is also credited with forcing Gingrich & Co. to target tax cuts to middle-income parents, saving the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and scuttling a business-backed plan to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay workers at prevailing union rates.
Emboldened by its influence, the centrist group is now gearing up for a 1996 rescue mission. Among their objectives: salvaging Amtrak subsidies, aid to the arts, and family-planning funding. "If we stick together, we can be a force," says Representative Marge Roukema (R-N.J.). "We shouldn't be balancing the budget on the backs of the sick, the elderly, children, and the disabled."
Sounds almost liberal. But the Republican rebels have succeeded where Democratic dissidents failed because they are unquestionably loyal to the party and its top priority: a balanced budget in seven years. Although some House leaders deride these career backbenchers as being "squishy" because of their eagerness to compromise, they work smoothly with the Speaker. "Gingrich has discovered that we are good team players," says Boehlert, a leading centrist who readily admits he'll take controlling the House over minority status any day. The hitch? "I am convinced that we will be in the majority for the next generation if we soften some of our hard edges and don't turn our back on the environment."
GRIM DAYS. Success for Boehlert hasn't been easy. In early 1995, the New Yorker mustered only one other GOP vote against the Contract With America's sweeping deregulation plan. "Am I the last moderate Republican?" he lamented at the time. Since then, the group's ranks have swelled along with polls that show most voters consider the Gingrich agenda too extreme. Nowadays, the bloc plots strategy at a weekly Tuesday Lunch Bunch headed by Representatives Frederick S. Upton of Michigan and Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin.
Some GOP colleagues bristle at the moderates' clout. To counteract their gains, hard-liners have organized a 70-member Conservative Action Team (CAT). "They're off-base on a number of issues," scoffs Representative Dan Burton (R-Ind.), one of CAT's top dogs. Still, the centrists' influence is no joking matter to Burton. "The moderate-to-liberal members of the party were starting to have too big an impact on the leadership," he says. "If the liberals start to push the party in the wrong direction, we think it is incumbent upon us to make sure this doesn't happen."
That's why incensed right-wingers are warning House leaders not to kow-tow to the centrists--even if it means the defeat of some GOP initiatives. "They are holding the majority hostage," grouses L. Brent Bozell III, chairman of the Conservative Victory Committee, an activist group. "Conservatives should fight for principles. You might lose a battle, but you'll win the war."
To bridge his party's ideological divide, Gingrich has created a Contentious Issues Group to seek consensus on such flash points as the Endangered Species Act and legal aid for the poor. So far, thanks to the budget impasse, CIG's bridge-building has been put on hold. But the players are hopeful. Explains Burton: "We either start shooting each other or try to hammer it out."
But some battles will be unavoidable, and the centrists show no willingness to buckle. Indeed, many are cool to tax cuts. And Boehlert expects more skirmishes over regulatory reform, environmental enforcement, education, job training, and safety-net programs for the poor and elderly. "We want to demonstrate that government is not all bad," he says. "Most of it works well."
RECRUITING. Such talk drives GOP revolutionaries crazy. But as President Clinton's surging poll numbers show, striking a moderate pose against excesses of the left and the right seems to be a winner with mainstream voters right now. And if the ranks of the Newtoids are thinned come November, the clout of Boehlert's gang could grow in 1997. Already, they are trying to expand their numbers: They boosted the recent special election campaign of moderate Representative Tom Campbell (R-Calif.) by collecting endorsements from environmental groups.
For now, a key part of their plan is to keep hot-button issues like abortion and gun control off the GOP agenda, as they recently did when they helped block a planned vote on lifting the assault rifle ban. The moderates--generally supporters of Presidential hopeful Bob Dole--hope new polls and the voters will "send a message to the leadership that it is suicidal to push some of the more right-wing aspects of the agenda," confides a Boehlert staffer.
Whether the moderates can win this battle for the Republican soul remains to be seen. But they're confident that smoothing the GOP's harsher edges gives their party its best shot at retaining control of Congress for years to come.