GOP to rally around McCain; House lead­ers strain for unity

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By S.A. Miller and Stephen Di­nan

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.

As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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