Tuesday, January 16, 2007

At a recent meeting of the House Republican leadership, members of the new minority party looked around and realized they were entering unfamiliar territory: Only one of them — Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio — had ever served as a member of the minority party on Capitol Hill.

“We’re all still finding our way,” said Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, the Republican Conference vice chairman.

The power shift has created its own internal struggle among Republicans.

The younger pit bulls want to go after the Democrats quickly and without remorse. Some of the older Republican stalwarts prefer sitting back and allowing new Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her party members to have their moment in the sun and govern accordingly.

“It’s in flux right now as to kind of what direction we take and how we operate now that we’re in the minority,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina.

“There is a group of us who think we have to throw down the gauntlet and be on the offensive from the very beginning in battles from Day One,” he said. “That’s the only way we are going to get back in the majority. Then there are others who say we need to let them have their time.”

Several Republicans confirmed privately that more than two-thirds of House Republicans are favoring a slow approach, while a minority of members think the attacks on Democrats should come rapid-fire.

Already, some say the opposition has been too quiet in allowing Democrats to pass key elements of their initial agenda.

There have been four major votes on Democratic bills since Congress convened under the new majority earlier this month. Of those, 24 Republicans crossed the line to support changes to Medicare, 37 voted with Democrats to expand funding for embryonic stem-cell research, 68 voted to implement more recommendations of the September 11 commission, and 82 Republicans voted for increasing the minimum wage.

Some Republicans privately fumed at these votes and noted that Democrats in the last Congress were far more united against the Republican majority’s bills.

“It’s the beginning of a long process,” said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee. “This is their majority, and they have the right, even though I think a lot of their policies have more political utility than practicability.”

“We’ve shown we can work together with Democrats on some issues, but our differences will become progressively clearer,” he said.

There is agreement among Republicans that they should focus on the promise of fiscal conservatism that brought them to power in 1994.

“We ought to draw the line in the sand on some of these policy issues,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican. “Some of us tried to do that last week, but it will really start when we have the ability to offer amendments and have a full debate.”

Mr. Flake added he thinks “partisanship” has a bad reputation.

“There should be fierce partisan debate,” he said. “We need a lot more of it.”

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, said a commitment to conservative ideals such as smaller government and low taxes can help her party win again, even if members aren’t actually attacking the new Democratic majority.

“It’s a matter of looking for the openings,” she said. “As a member of the minority, you realize that there are opportunities to affect change. You learn how to go about affecting things when you have neither the gavel nor the megaphone.”

But some Republicans are seizing that megaphone.

Mr. McHenry has already gone after the top Democrat in a series of press releases, floor speeches and public appearances. Last week, he pressed Mrs. Pelosi and the Democrats for what he said was hypocrisy in their bill increasing the minimum wage. The bill exempted American Samoa, whose largest employer StarKist Tuna is owned by Del Monte, a company based in Mrs. Pelosi’s San Francisco district.

The speaker, who said neither StarKist nor Del Monte lobbied her, announced Friday that Democrats will now make sure the bill applies to all U.S. territories, including American Samoa.

Still, Mr. McHenry in a press release declared “something fishy” was going on and peppered Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, with questions during a heated exchange on the House floor.

Mr. Frank, who was acting as speaker pro tempore at the time, ultimately refused to recognize Mr. McHenry at the podium, and later said the Republican was trying to “assault” House rules.

Mrs. Granger said Republicans are balancing the treatment of Democrats between holding their feet to the political fire and allowing them some time to bask in the sun.

“Last week was [Nancy] Pelosi’s time. She’s won the speakership, and it was a historic time that was wonderful to see a woman achieving,” Mrs. Granger said last week of the opening session of Congress. “That’s an excitement that transcends more than one election.”

After the pomp and circumstance ended, she said, “We plan to get down to business.”

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