Bad lieutenants

Moderate Republicans like Rep. Christopher Shays have proven to be an unexpected stone in Bush's shoe. But do they have the stomach to stand up to the GOP's bully boys?

Published July 31, 2001 11:07PM (EDT)

To some members of the House Republican caucus, it was a jarring sight. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., looked like he was crying.

It was July 12, in the midst of chaos over the campaign finance reform bill offered by Shays and Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass. Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, took to the floor to denounce the Shays-Meehan team for complaining about parliamentary hurdles the Republican leadership had set up for their bill.

"This is unreasonable," Armey said on the House floor. "It's naive. It's uninformed. It's arrogant."

This was the nice version. In a closed-door meeting with the House Republicans, tempers flared ferociously. "It was very nasty," says Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Shays-Meehan crew. "The tone of the caucus was out of bounds."

Republicans were angry at Shays and the other reformers, and furious with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was working with the House GOP moderates and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., to get the controversial bill passed. Bellicose adjectives and venomous invective filled the room. That's when Shays got teary. When it was time for him to speak, his voice cracked, and he had to take a moment to collect himself.

"The toughest thing was recognizing that diplomacy had failed and it really was going to be more guerrilla warfare," Shays says now. "I was kind of depressed about the implications of what was happening. So I had to fight back the tears."

According to Shays-Meehan advocate Scott Harshbarger, the president of Common Cause, there's no reason to doubt Shays' mettle. "He's a tough guy, he just expresses it in a much different way."

But in a House with a mere six-seat Republican majority, it doesn't take more than a few errant Republican congressmen, however pacifist they seem -- and Shays was a Peace Corps volunteer -- to gum up the works. For President Bush, with the Senate now in Democratic hands, it's incumbent upon the House GOP leadership to serve as an unwaveringly loyal kid brother, rubber-stamping Bush's initiatives and shielding him from having to veto legislation he doesn't even want to touch.

But Shays and his fellow moderates have become something of a problem in this regard. Last Friday, 19 of them joined with 198 House Democrats to oppose Bush's rollback of the tougher standards for arsenic in drinking water that President Clinton had signed into law in the waning days of his presidency. Weeks before that, a similar group (including Shays) joined with Democrats to sandbag some offshore-drilling measures favored by both Bush and Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. Two weeks ago, questions from an amorphous group of GOP moderates (including Shays) held up a vote on Bush's faith-based initiative for a day.

The GOP moderates, who generally seem more distressed than empowered by their newfound power, make up a free-floating group that includes at its core, along with Shays, Reps. Sherwood Boehlert and Amo Houghton of New York, Jim Greenwood of Pennsylvania, Mike Castle of Delaware, Marge Roukema of New Jersey and Mark Foley of Florida. Unlike conservative Democrats such as Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Texas and Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, these defiant ones express adoration for their leadership and their party. They don't flirt with the idea of a Jim Jeffords-esque party hop. They don't even seem to enjoy bucking their leadership, however often they do it.

"I don't like fights," Shays says in his mild-mannered, NPR voice, summing up the ethos of the House GOP moderates. "But I get in them a lot. I don't like it." House GOP moderates tend to come from suburban districts in Yankee states and are socially more liberal, but as a group, they're amorphous. "It's an ever-changing cast," says a House GOP leadership source. "It depends on the issue of the day." Unlike, say, the 33-member conservative Blue Dog Democrats, there is no official, organized clump of GOP moderates. There's an informal Tuesday lunch group and a GOP "Main Street" coalition, but Shays and the moderates have yet to exploit their positions to become a power bloc. At least, not yet.

It hasn't helped that the White House is hardly reaching out to the sudden power brokers. Though his support for Bush has been unequivocal -- he even went down to Palm Beach County during the Florida presidential election recount to serve as a Republican observer, and he supported the president's tax cut enthusiastically -- Shays has been invited to the White House only once.

"In terms of reaching out, I'm not a confidant," Shays acknowledges. "When I'm on the Sunday programs his press people call up and make sure I know what they're saying to the public, make sure I understand their talking points. So we have that kind of relationship."

And in the failure of the administration to reach out to moderate Republicans, something else emerges. "The vote on arsenic was for me a kind of interesting thing," Shays says, explaining that he has no problem with a closer scientific critique of the last-minute Clinton regulation. In the end, though, he voted against Hastert and Bush because he doesn't have "assurances that they're going to do the right thing. I'm not sure that my leadership or the president will do what science tells them." Bush's heart is in the right place, he thinks, but the president is so beholden to the conservative base of the GOP that he is losing the middle. "I'm not convinced that they will deliver, because I'm not sure that they will be able to deliver," he says.

"We don't want to put the party in a position where we look like we're in disarray," Shays says. "We have a pretty good relationship with Denny [Hastert]; Denny's challenge is that if 25 percent [of the House Republicans] feel one way and 75 percent feel the other way, he can't go with the 25 percent."

Still, the problem seems to be less with Hastert than with the president, whose agenda in the first six months seems to have been so far to the right that the GOP House caucus -- which had been a model of unanimity in recent years -- has had difficulty responding. Says conservative Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., "In the last six years, the Republican conference got pretty good at building 218 votes from within the conference. If we had a tough issue, the moderates and the conservatives would work it out." With Bush setting the agenda, that's changed. "What's happening more often than not is that we're following the White House's lead. We're not coming together as a team and then moving the policy forward; the policy's coming in and being imposed on us without us having gone through what sometimes in the past was a painful process -- but also a productive process -- and that is our working out our differences."

To understand the GOP's un-unified front -- the messy, last-minute conflicts, and Hastert's decision to deal with the moderates by occasionally steamrolling them -- it helps to understand Shays. In many ways he embodies the paradoxes of the moderates, the men and women who wreak havoc with reluctance but increasing frequency. Just this past spring, the GOP leadership worked with the White House on targeting 45 11th-hour Clinton regulations they all wanted to rescind, such as new rules for power plants operating near national parks, new requirements for reporting worker injuries, a much more stringent allowance for the parts-per-million of arsenic in drinking water. In the last few days, Hastert and his team have decided to abandon these plans. Instead, it's already being reported that the White House will backtrack after the August recess, pushing issues of broad appeal to shore up some of the moderates -- not just among those in the public, but also the pesky Shayses of the House.

How many of those moderates are there? On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Hastert said that "there's probably 20 moderates and 30 conservatives, and everybody else is kind of in the middle." Shays doesn't see the numbers adding up quite like that; he's a bit more optimistic with his numbers, estimating that there are 50 GOP moderates, 25 who are moderate but feign more conservative ideologies, and 25 who are conservative but who represent moderate congressional districts.

Interestingly, though Shays is almost always one of the leaders of this troupe, he doesn't seem to want it any other way. Even though he constantly bucks his party on campaign finance reform, abortion and the environment, Shays seems to know his place. He's not a fringe player -- he was a key lieutenant to former Speaker Newt Gingrich. But he clearly knows his political limitations. "No moderate [Republican] will ever be speaker of the House," he says. "If a moderate comes into the leadership they have to play down that they're moderate."

Still, that doesn't mean he's eager to split with his party. "Any six of us could bring down the place," Shays says. "But we bring down ourselves with it."

And he had hoped the Shays-Meehan campaign reform bill would be handled with less confrontation than it was. Shays and his allies wanted an easy yea-or-nay vote on their legislation. But to avoid a House-Senate conference committee, where the reformers feared their bills would be gutted, Shays and Meehan changed the bill to more closely resemble the Senate version that had just passed, offered by McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Dealing with Hastert, Shays argued that he wanted to introduce this newer, post-McCain-Feingold incarnation of his bill. If that didn't work, Shays asked, could they make the changes in one amendment? Hastert and he came to some sort of understanding; Shays felt that whatever Hastert proposed would be fair.

But then the communication stopped, Shays says. "And I knew beforehand that there would be this moment. I knew that it was going to be too difficult for Denny to honor what he said," he says. "In my judgment, Denny and I know what we agreed to do and what reached that floor was not what we agreed to."

Hastert proposed requiring 13 different amendments to make the changes to the bill the Shays-Meehan coalition wanted, a task that the Shays-Meehan team thought would be too difficult to achieve. Democrats and other past supporters of the bill were already peeling off; getting their extremely narrow majority of supporters to stick together through all those votes might be impossible. The Shays-Meehan team balked and led a successful revolt against the rule. Every House Democrat (except for fringe Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Ohio) and 19 Republicans voted against the speaker's rule and defeated it. As a result, Hastert shelved Shays-Meehan, and few expect to see it again.

And there was McCain, telling Shays, "I told you so." McCain had for weeks been telling Shays that he had placed too much faith in Hastert's word.

Shays' wife, Betsi, a former teacher who now works at the Peace Corps, thinks it's a product of his genial nature. "He is in an arena that is increasingly partisan and personal and he somehow continues to see the good in people and in situations," she says. "I've never heard him talk about someone in a cruel way. It just blows me away."

Shays doesn't like it when the cynics of the world are proven to have the better judgment. "That was the other distasteful thing," Shays says. "I wanted to frankly prove John McCain wrong on this, candidly. Because he said in the end they would try to screw us."

But Shays trusted Hastert. "Perhaps you could argue that he put a little too much confidence in the word of the speaker, who kept assuring him that his bill would be heard in a fair fashion and clearly the speaker did not do that," McCain says. "But Chris really believes in trying to act with respect and restraint. He treats his adversaries with respect and that's something it took me a long time to learn. It's very effective for him; he got that bill passed two times before, you know."

And when the 19 Republicans voted against Hastert's rule, it wasn't just McCain they were following. "I'm a Vietnam veteran and I worked for the CIA for the last 10 years; I've encountered lots of different people in my life," says Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., the only freshman to have voted against the leadership's rule on the Shays-Meehan bill. "I've discovered that sometimes the person who is the most quiet and the most soft-spoken and the most slow to anger can be the most relentless advocate for an issue or for an idea."

Will the moderates face a similar steamrolling on the bipartisan patients' bill of rights? Hastert has said that it's his "intention" that the legislation be given a vote this week, but, of course, he said that about the bill last week, too. In this fight, Shays is an ally of Bush and Hastert, supporting the rival bill proposed by Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky. Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, however, seems determined not to see his bill go the way of Shays' campaign finance reform effort.

It might help Ganske if he's willing to grapple with party leaders in a way that Shays, ultimately, found out of bounds during his own recent scrape. Some on the Shays-Meehan team were concerned after he began telling reporters that he wasn't going to ask any Republicans to vote against Hastert's rule creating 13 amendments. The reason McCain took the unorthodox -- and controversial -- trip over to the House side the day of the vote, according to sources close to the effort, was because some in the reformers' camp thought that the team needed someone who would be more aggressive than Shays.

It's not an entirely new take on Shays. When she started dating him during their senior year in high school in Darien, Conn., Betsi would hear her then boyfriend, whom she saw as "gentle" and "kindhearted," talk about entering politics.

"I kind of wondered if it would be a very short career," she says. "If it would chew him up and spit him out before breakfast."

Nonetheless, after a Peace Corps tour in Fiji (Shays was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War), the Shayses returned to Connecticut, where he eventually ran for state representative in 1974. He won, and the new representative for Stamford was only a few minutes into his new job when he began bucking his party in the name of reform.

In the thick of Watergate, a questionnaire from the good-government group Common Cause had asked state legislators if they supported on-the-record roll-call votes in committees, and if they supported open committee hearings. An overwhelming majority of the Legislature had said yes, yet there they sat on Day 1 of the legislative session in 1975, adopting formal rules that did neither. So Shays wrote an amendment. Then the Republican minority leader asked him to hold back, in the name of comity. The Democratic speaker of the state House asked him to do the same.

"That was for me my moment of truth," Shays says. "I thought, 'If I cave in on this first day ...' And I almost did. But then I thought I might as well not be up there."

So he offered the amendment. It failed, but a subsequent outcry forced the Republican and Democratic leaders to change the rules to the way Shays had suggested them -- without including Shays in the deal. From that moment on, Shays has been derided by his fellow Republicans as someone who "thinks his constituency is the New York Times editorial board, not the people of Connecticut," as one former Republican official with close ties to the House leadership puts it.

That's a bit harsh -- Shays was reelected in his swing district with 58 percent of the vote last fall -- but the Times does, indeed, seem to adore him. That probably won't change with its new editorial page editor, Gail Collins, who spent years covering the Connecticut Legislature. "I covered about 80 of the members of the lower House, and he was not one of them," Collins reports, "but you couldn't help writing about him because he was so unique.

"One time I remember him getting up and announcing to great shock and horror that one person on the other side of the aisle had left the chamber but left his book on his 'yes' button so as to vote," Collins says. "It was sort of a new role back then; there weren't any 'ethics' people. It's a little bit of the McCain thing, although he's not nearly as ambitious as McCain, or as egocentric. There's this real sweet side to his personality, which is highly unusual with 'ethics' people, who are usually pretty rigid."

Since making it to Congress in 1987, Shays has worked hard to cultivate his biography: a good-government type on ethics issues, moderate to liberal on social issues, conservative on the budget. Many conservatives will forever hold him in contempt for his vote against the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998. Conservative writer/pundit Ann Coulter, who has publicly mulled running against Shays, once wrote that Shays was a "phony, ponderous, hand-wringing panty-waist" who "was one of only five Republicans to vote against the impeachment of a lying, felonious, contemptible President."

Few seem to recall that Shays has his moments of grand GOP loyalty. He was the driving force behind the Congressional Accountability Act, which made the laws of the land apply to Congress, one of the 10 points in the Contract With America. In 1997, it was Shays, then a lieutenant to Speaker Gingrich, who first tipped Gingrich off that a band of conservatives, with the cooperation of Armey and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was plotting to unseat Gingrich in a coup that exploded in their faces. When Gingrich was lambasted on ethics charges for which he was eventually fined, Shays -- original sponsor of the House gift ban -- leapt to his defense.

Now, of course, Shays is best known as leader of the fight to ban the unregulated, unlimited campaign cash known as "soft money," which he and Meehan had accomplished twice before. Shays acknowledges that "sometimes ... my leadership doesn't take me as seriously as sometimes I would like," but says he admires Hastert and likes DeLay and understands Armey, even when they browbeat him or call him names or use parliamentary doublespeak to screw him on a bill.

Shays clearly does feel a tad marginalized by the leadership and the Bush White House, and clearly this is not how he would like it. The question for his fellow moderates -- Greenwood on abortion, for instance, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., on the environment, Foley on anti-discrimination measures -- is whether Shays' path is the one to follow. McCain's anticipation that Hastert would "screw" them in the end may have been cynical, but it was also essentially correct.

And yet, perhaps the silent treatment will ultimately work. Concerns about the rescinding of state and local anti-discrimination provisions allowed in Bush's "faith-based" initiative emboldened a team of GOP moderates, led by Foley, to the point that Hastert postponed a vote on the measure -- for a day. A blink of an eye later, the bill soared through the House with only four Republicans opposing it -- and neither Foley nor Shays was among them, reassured as they were that the problems they had with the bill would be worked out in conference committee.

In the past few days, Shays has begun to voice not just disappointment in the less centrist foundations of the Bush agenda, but mistrust. While Ganske's GOP partner in the patients' bill of rights, Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., tries to work with the White House to fashion a compromise, Ganske himself rolls his eyes and decries a leadership that will do "whatever they can to maximize whether they win or not," which includes "subterfuge." The moderate chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., sounds almost giddy in anticipation of Republicans voting against the Bush proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"For some of our members, ANWR will be a great vote for them," Davis told the New York Times, "a defining vote to show that Hastert and DeLay aren't pushing you around." These may not be the sounds of an officially organized movement, but they -- including the words from the soft-spoken Shays -- are sure as hell getting louder.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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