Republicans have trouble dealing with their own success and are beginning to acknowledge it.
“I think we capitulated a lot,” said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the assistant Senate minority leader, in a recent interview with The Washington Times.
Since winning control of Congress in the 1994 elections, his party’s majorities in both houses have steadily dwindled. Bruised in confrontations with Bill Clinton, Republicans competed with Democrats as big spenders, ran away from core Republican issues and finally lost their majority in the Senate when Vermont’s James M. Jeffords bolted the party in May.
In interviews with Senate Republicans, some of whom were critical of their leadership but declined to be quoted by name, a picture emerges of a party that is still shellshocked over being once again in the minority.
What also emerges is a behind-the-scenes move by conservative Senate activists to enhance Sen. Trent Lott’s leadership.
Senate Republicans readily acknowledge that, with 20 of their members up for re-election next year, they will need a better message than, “We want to be the majority again, so vote for us.”
“We’re not going to be very effective if that’s all we’ve got to say,” said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, chairman of the steering committee, which serves as the Republicans’ “conservative caucus” in the Senate.
“We have to stand up for our principles and show the difference between Republicans and Democrats,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a steering committee member.
Mr. Kyl said drawing vivid contrasts is vital, but they should focus “on a few issues that people care about and that are big enough to get through the media filter. That’s part of our problem. We haven’t mastered the technique of getting our message through.”
One such issue may be campaign finance regulation.
“If we can kill campaign finance, that’s significant,” said Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky. “We can sell that as a significant bit of progress. No poll I know shows that is an issue in an election.”
Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado thinks his party’s leadership has to unburden itself of a certain timidity it developed while in the majority.
“We’re better at selling a message of change, as in the ‘Contract with America’ in 1994,” Mr. Allard said. “Some of my fellow Republicans feel that once we become successful, we shouldn’t push for change. So we’ve been having more taxes and government in Washington, we’ve been trying to protect the establishment, and so people lose confidence in our leadership.”
Mr. Nickles is all for change and thinks pushing it will come more naturally now that his party is in the minority.
“The Democrats — the Clintonites — always worked to spend a whole lot,” he said. “Clinton threatened not to sign bills that didn’t have more spending. Where in the last three years spending was growing like crazy, it’s in our interest now to adhere to President Bush’s budget and show some fiscal discipline.”
Having a Republican in the White House also makes a difference, even with Republicans no longer setting the Senate’s agenda.
“If President Bush doesn’t like a bill, he can veto it and we told him we will sustain his veto all day,” said Mr. Nickles.
To regain the majority, a small band of conservative Republican senators has formed what one member called an “off-line” team focused on strategy, tactics and “message,” that also serves as a “tough-guy squad” in dealing with the Democrats.
Core members of the “off-line” team are Mr. Kyl, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, Sen. Larry E. Craig of Idaho and Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Also involved are Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and, occasionally, Mr. Nickles himself.
The “off-line” group is reminiscent of the hard-charging, “Young Turk” House Republican backbenchers who, in the Reagan era, called themselves the “Conservative Opportunity Society.” Led by Mr. Kyl, Newt Gingrich, former Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota and former Rep. Bob Walker of Pennsylvania, they waged a guerrilla war, not officially sanctioned by the House Republican leadership, against the Democratic majority.
Mr. Lott, who was House minority whip at the time, did not huddle with the insurgents but sent staff and contributed ideas.
“We saw Lott as one of us, but he also was a loyal whip for [former House Republican leader] Bob Michel and tried to make certain Michel’s agenda was advanced,” Mr. Weber said.
Mr. Michel kept his distance from the Young Turks, whose private complaint was that Mr. Michel was too bipartisan and accommodating toward the Democrats.
“We felt our leadership did not have a winning strategy and needed to be prodded and cajoled to put one together to accomplish conservative objectives,” said Mr. Weber.
Now some of Mr. Lott’s Senate colleagues are saying the same thing about Mr. Lott, who has steered government contracts to his home state of Mississippi.
“After pork, Trent’s default position is conservative — but he likes to compromise,” confided a Senate Republican colleague.
“I know it is not in his nature, but Trent has to get tough,” another Republican senator remarked privately.
To help Mr. Lott maintain the bipartisan tone of a leader, the Senate’s “off-line” group strikes out on its own, thus preserving for the Republican leader the “plausible deniability” that the Lott-Kyl group once gave to Mr. Michel when they were House members.
Last week, Mr. Kyl, for example, refused to agree to a unanimous consent agreement to consider an Interior Department authorization bill until the new Senate Democratic majority agreed to let the full Senate vote on five pending nominations that Mr. Bush had made for the Interior Department.