House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and their congressional Republican colleagues deserve credit for the the Democratic leadership's decision to abandon the destructive moratorium on offshore drilling. But Republicans shouldn't celebrate too much, because they are staring disaster in the face - in the form of the Bush administration's mortgage-bailout plan, which is almost certain to cost much more than the $700 billion now being proposed. Part of the reason that the Democrats folded on drilling is that, given the reality of $4-a-gallon gas prices, the moratorium had become a political liability. But the mortgage-bailout issue offers a golden opportunity to lay a political trap for the Republicans.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Majority Whip James Clyburn say the administration can forget about Democratic support for the bailout bill if it cannot get a significant number of Republicans to vote for the "emergency" legislation. Of course, were Republicans to do this, the political consequences could be disastrous. It would give Democrats political cover to support one of the most massive expansions of government (in this case the corporate welfare state) since LBJ's Great Society. If Republicans voted for this bailout, it would be another nail in the coffin for the self-styled "party of limited government." Late in 2003, congressional Republicans rammed through passage of the Medicare/prescription drug entitlement at a projected cost of nearly $400 billion over 10 years. The mortgage-bailout scheme is priced at $700 billion, although its leading backer, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, admits it could cost taxpayers more - and he has made this prospect more likely by joining with Democrats to add consumer loans, student loans and mortgages to the bill. (While this has been going on, the "Big Three" automakers have been seeking $50 billion in federal loans, something that becomes much more difficult to resist if the mortgage-bailout bill passes.)
The bottom line? If Republicans go along with Mr. Paulson's proposal, the idea that Republicans are the party of "limited government" becomes a joke (think of Stephen Colbert and what happened to President George H.W. Bush after he broke his "read my lips" pledge that he would not raise taxes.) It is no exaggeration at all to say that right now, in the final days of the 110th Congress, a battle for the soul of the Republican Party is underway. It pits Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell and other members of the House and Senate Republican leadership against much of the conservative grass-roots and congressional conservatives. In the Senate, Richard Shelby of Alabama, ranking Republican on the banking committee, has expressed skepticism about the bailout - as has Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. In the House, conservative Republican stalwarts like Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas have been mobilizing opponents of the bailout bill. Their message is starting to get through. Rep. Ray LaHood, a moderate Illinois Republican who is retiring from Congress, told administration officials yesterday that the measure would not pass.
John McCain, at the least, has taken a notable step in suspending his campaign for the sake of working on a solution.