WASHINGTON – With Congress on the brink of the slimmest GOP majority since 1955, political analysts say Maryland’s Republican House members are poised to wield greater influence than ever before.
Three of Maryland’s four Republican members of Congress are either considered moderates or hail from a district with a Democratic majority. Moderates like them, with ties across the aisle and within their party, will be essential to foster coalitions if Congress is going to get anything accomplished in the upcoming session, analysts say.
Otherwise, partisanship could stymie a House in which Republicans will enjoy a majority of only nine to 11 seats, depending on the outcome of two still-undecided races.
“I think that there is going to be tremendous influence for the moderates. There has to be because of the razor-thin majority,” said Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda.
“Just pragmatically, you can’t get anything done…unless you reach across the aisle. That is what I am planning to do and what I have done,” she said.
The current Congress has 222 Republicans, 209 Democrats, two independents and two vacancies, but the GOP so far has only been able to capture 220 seats in the 107th Congress to the Democrats’ 211 and two for independents.
Morella said she looks forward to a Congress in which she, and like-minded Republicans, can mediate between factions. She said she has already met with moderate Republicans and plans to meet with centrist Democrats to produce the consensus she thinks is necessary for policymaking in the next Congress.
But some hard-liners think compromise may be a mistake. Christian Josi, executive director of the American Conservative Union, said the idea that Democrats and moderates have to cooperate to break a deadlock is inaccurate and he commended the House leadership’s ability to press issues.
“The wisest thing that (GOP presidential nominee George W.) Bush and the leadership can do is to stay the course outlined by the campaign,” he said. “Any notion that the moderates can sway the leadership more than others is not valid….If they (the leadership) lead the people will follow.”
Most analysts agreed with Morella, however, that moderates will have to rise to the occasion if Congress is going to legislate effectively. Paul Peter Jesep, national vice president of the Ripon Society, a moderate GOP think tank, said that if House partisans try to “govern from the extremes, you are going to have trouble moving forward.”
“If moderates can get their act together…they will be setting the agenda in the next Congress,” he said. “That agenda will not be focused on hot-button issues that drive people apart.”
Jesep and others say the elections showed that voters are ready for consensus on issues such as education, health-care reform and some tax relief.
“The American public is going to be absolutely fed up with the rancor over this election. People just say get it done,” said Ron Talley, communications director for Republican Main Street Partnership.
“They are not going to want their Congress to resume with that kind of rancor. So the role of the moderates is going to be far more important,” Talley said.
Not only are voters tired of that rancor, said Ken Ruberg, national director of the Republican Mainstream Committee, but also of the legislative inaction it produces.
“If you are a conservative Republican and you don’t believe in federal control of education…then perhaps gridlock is not such a bad thing,” Ruberg said. But he said it is otherwise a recipe for political disaster.
Other analysts said moderates may have more selfish reasons for coalition building: The razor-thin majority means that Republicans can easily lose the House in 2002. The majority can only be sustained if the GOP holds its moderate seats and picks up seats in swing districts, experts say.
“Republican members of Congress did surprisingly well in the Northeast and I would think that anyone concerned in party building would be interested in looking at the districts these folks represent,” said pollster Carol Arscott. “If the Republican Party is looking to make inroads in the Northeast…they have to look at these districts.”
Paul Ellington, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, agreed. He said the districts that elected Morella and Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R- Timonium, are just the ones the party should be eyeing.
“The Republicans need to look at these (swing) districts…(where lawmakers) look for a commonsense government approach,” said Ellington. “They are not ideologues. They are pragmatic people.”
It is not often that pragmatism propels lawmakers to center stage, but Stephen Frantzich, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy, said it might do so in the coming months. If not, he said, “the real danger is a do- nothing Congress.”
Harry Basehart, a Salisbury State University political scientist, said the slim GOP majority will make it even easier for Democrats, embittered by the election, to halt legislation.
“Assuming that Bush is president, I guess my first reaction is that it may be difficult to get much done at all,” he said. “You don’t know how the Democrats in the minority are going to try and delay things and not cooperate.”