GOP to rally around McCain; House leaders strain for unity
House Republicans on May 14 said Sen. John McCain is the cure to what ails them and that they’re essentially pinning their electoral hopes on his coattails and credentials as a straight-talking spendingcutter.
But even as the leaders of the party’s caucus tried to show unity and downplay last week’s stinging special election loss in another conservative district, they were contradicting each other on a key spending issue.
Briefing reporters, Rep. Adam H. Putnam, chairman of the House Republican Conference, and Rep. Eric Cantor, Republicans’ chief deputy whip, said they need to draw clearer distinctions with Democrats on issues such as spending and taxes — just minutes before they split with each other, with Mr. Cantor opposing and Mr. Putnam voting for the massive farm bill.
President Bush has promised to veto the bill for breaking the budget, but Mr. Putnam defended it, saying it’s already smaller than the 2002 version Mr. Bush signed — in effect giving credit to Democrats who wrote the measure for paring it down from the Republicans’ last attempt.
Mr. Putnam of Florida and the Republicans’ whip, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, voted for the measure, along with 98 other Republicans and most Democrats. Voting against it were Mr. Cantor of Virginia, Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and 89 other Republicans, as well as 15 Democrats.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus in the House, said it amounted to “less than a hopeful moment” as Republicans seek to regroup after a third special election defeat in six months.
“There’s a difference between the two parties, but I don’t think we’ve done a significantly good job of putting distance between us and the Democrats to where the American people realize it,” the Texas Republican said.
“To some extent, still, after 2006, there are still too many members of the conference who are being complacent,” he said.
Republicans dropped below 200 House seats with a loss in Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District last week. On May 14, they rushed to embrace their presumptive presidential nominee as the one thing that can save them from electoral disaster in November.
“We are very happy to be running alongside John McCain and believe very strongly that he will begin to shape the outlook for November in much bigger ways,” Mr. Cantor said.
Democrat Travis Childers on May 13 won Mississippi’s race in a strongly Republican district that delivered 62 percent of its vote to Mr. Bush in 2004. That followed Democratic victories in a Louisiana seat that had been held by Republicans for three decades and the Illinois seat that had been held by former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
Hours after the Mississippi results were posted, Republicans dropped their scheduled agenda at their weekly closed-door meeting and instead opened the floor for members to vent their frustrations. Mr. Boehner and National Republican Campaign Committee chairman Rep. Tom Cole led the discussion, fielding questions and promising their new agenda will give candidates a pitch for voters come November.
Rep. John Carter of Texas, the secretary of the Republican Conference, described the mood as “kind of sad,” but said the meeting was not the blood bath some staffers had expected.
Several members and senior aides said later that there is not enough time to shake up leadership, and the leaders themselves decided to stick together and back one another, Mr. Cantor said.
Still to be seen is whether the staff at the NRCC will be overhauled, but Mr. Cole of Oklahoma said the party’s problems will not be solved by a shake-up of his committee.
“What we have now is a deficiency in our message and a loss of confidence of the American people that we will do what we say we will do,” Mr. Cole said in a conference call with reporters. “That’s something we need to [. . . ] look in the mirror about and really be honest about.”
He, too, predicted that the mav- erick appeal of Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, will help downballot candidates.
Democrats crowed over their victory and said it suggests many more opportunities in November’s elections.
“There is no district that is safe for Republican candidates,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Democrats said there are 50 other Republican-held seats where Democrats perform even better in national elections than they have in the Mississippi districts, meaning any of those seats could be good targets.
Republican leaders said they have atoned for the problems that hurt them in the last election and are now positioned to draw contrasts with Democrats.
“We admit that we spent too much money, that we had corruption that undermined people’s fundamental basis for supporting Republicans, and we paid the penalty for that in 2006,” Mr. Putnam said.
The McCain campaign is stepping up by deploying top adviser Carly Fiorina to join in Republicans’ announcement of their families section of their new agenda.
Brian Rogers, a spokesman for Mr. McCain, said the Mississippi loss is “another indication that we as Republicans have a lot of work to do,” but that Mr. McCain is in a position to do well even in this environment.
“We do have the candidate that cut through all of that,” he said.
Mr. Cantor called Mr. McCain “a demonstrated vote-getter in terms of the independents,” and listed young voters, Hispanics and both married and single women as demographics where Mr. McCain can help Republicans.
“The overall approach he’s represented in his years in Washington is something the public has accepted,” Mr. Cantor said.
Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain gets a tour of the Ohio eWaste Recycling plant from Guy Wolfenbarger. Struggling Republicans hope to ride Mr. McCain’s coattails to victory.