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Small Number of GOP Moderates Gauge Next Moves

May 7, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Kwame Holman reports on a small group of Congressional GOP moderates as they craft their message and next moves during a difficult time for their party.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, there aren’t many of them, but what’s a moderate Republican to do? Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has the story.

KWAME HOLMAN: According to a new poll, fewer Americans call themselves Republicans today than at any time in the last 25 years.

Last week, the GOP suffered a high-profile defection when veteran Senate moderate Arlen Specter shocked official Washington by announcing he was leaving the Republican Party to run next year as a Democrat.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, D-Penn.: When you take a look at the Pennsylvania Republican electorate, several hundred thousand Republicans shifted last year, and it has a bleak picture.

KWAME HOLMAN: Despite his incumbency, the longtime moderate Specter says he would have lost in next year’s primary to a far more conservative challenger who had the support of some Senate Republicans.

Specter’s departure from the GOP has reignited the debate over whether the Republican Party has lost ground with the public because it has become too ideologically conservative and unwilling to listen to moderates in its ranks.

Olympia Snowe of Maine, another Senate GOP moderate, says she was shocked and saddened by Specter’s surprise defection, and she blamed her party in a New York Times op-ed the next day, saying, “In my view, the political environment that has made it inhospitable for a moderate Republican in Pennsylvania is a microcosm of a deeper, more pervasive problem that places our party in jeopardy nationwide.”

Snowe says the current conservative dominance of the GOP is not consistent with the ideologically diverse party that first elected her to Congress in 1978.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE, R-Maine: We didn’t question each other’s credentials. We’d see — we were Republicans. We’re under this one big umbrella. And what can we do to figure it out?

But, obviously, if they have this litmus test, it’s going to drive a number of people out. I think that is a losing strategy from all perspectives.

Few moderates remain

KWAME HOLMAN: Snowe points to the defection of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords in 2001 as the beginning of the unraveling of the moderate presence in the GOP. Jeffords left the party to become an independent, but caucused with the Democrats, shifting the balance of power in the Senate.

Snowe and her Maine colleague, Susan Collins, now are considered the two remaining moderate Republicans in the Senate. That leaves them trying to balance their loyalty to party with their desire to reach across the aisle.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: My DNA is moderate Republican, so I'm very comfortable belonging to this party, but I'm going to continue to push the party to be more inclusive.

CONGRESSPERSON: Ms. Collins, aye.

KWAME HOLMAN: It's a philosophy that was on display in February, as lawmakers debated President Obama's economic stimulus plan. Snowe, Collins and Specter helped broker compromise legislation and were the only Republicans to support the final measure.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: There are times when, during the debate on the recovery act, when I felt that some of my Republican colleagues were unnecessarily harsh, but that passed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Now the moderates are headed into a potential confirmation battle over a new Supreme Court nominee and a debate over health care reform with further diminished ranks. And there is disagreement within the party about whether that is good or bad.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: Disagreeing with someone in your community or your family is as American as apple pie.

KWAME HOLMAN: A self-described centrist conservative, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham said that, after two bruising election cycles in which Republicans lost 15 seats, the party needs senators like Collins and Snowe.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: We need to find candidates that can be competitive. There are 50 states, and each state gets two senators. If you want to be a majority party, which I do, I have no desire to be part of 30 Republicans, you know, a bunch of angry, white guys from the South and the Midwest, sitting in a corner, grumbling about the state of affairs that can't do anything about it.

I want to be a vibrant party that has a lot of different people, that's moving the ball generally in the same direction -- center-right politics -- that can play in all 50 states. And to do that, we've got to recruit candidates and you've got to make people feel welcome.

Rebuilding voter base

KWAME HOLMAN: While lawmakers in Washington look to recruit prospective candidates, the party also has begun attempts to rebuild its base with voters.

A newly formed group called the National Council for a New America recently kicked off a listening tour that will feature prominent Republicans, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor.

Graham's fellow South Carolina Republican, Jim DeMint, a staunch conservative, also wants to see the party back in the majority. But he says that can only happen if lawmakers are true to the core Republican principles of limited government, free markets, and personal freedom.

SEN. JIM DEMINT, R-S.C.: We can have a big tent around some core principles that are very attractive to every American. And that's my goal, is to show that these ideas, these freedom solutions, work for everyone, they work in education, they work in health care, they work in energy, in transportation.

I think we've got the best message. That's what I'm trying to pound into my Republican colleagues. That's not a far-right idea.

I think what we're seeing from the American people now is these limited government ideas, these freedom-oriented ideas, are right in the center of where most people are. And I think it's the one that's going to attract a lot of Democrats back to our party, a lot of independents. But we've got to stand for something, or who wants to be a Republican?

KWAME HOLMAN: In the wake of Specter's departure, DeMint said he would "rather have 30 Republicans who believe in something than 60 who don't believe in anything."

Collins said that approach seemed shortsighted to her.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: This is a matter of basic math. Clearly, if we keep shrinking, we're not going to be able to be effective and to have an impact on the important issues of the day.

Broadening the party

KWAME HOLMAN: Snowe, meanwhile, cautions that forcing members to adhere to a strict set of standards is damaging to the party.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Once you set that standard and once you begin that exclusionary approach -- "you're either with us or against us" -- and as you focus on your own instead of figuring out how to build a broader, you know, majority within the Republican Party tells me that there's a sign of weakness.

KWAME HOLMAN: DeMint contends the ongoing debate will be good for the party in the end.

SEN. JIM DEMINT: There's going to be tension, but that doesn't mean I want to throw them out of the party. They may want to throw me out of the party. But right now, I think what we're seeing is good, healthy discussion, because it's forcing us to look at who we are and what we want to do as a party.

KWAME HOLMAN: As for how the Republican Party will rebound from its losses on Capitol Hill and out in the country, Collins prescribes a dose of optimism.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: We need to be welcoming into our party anyone who is interested in being a Republican. We shouldn't require them to pass some test to make sure that they adhere to every plank of the Republican platform.

And I am confident that, if we take a positive, inclusive, inviting approach to the issues and to those who want to join our party, we can come back. We've done it before, and I know we can do it again.

KWAME HOLMAN: With the exception of the two senators from Maine, there are no other Senate Republicans from the Northeast. The next closest GOP senator in the East represents North Carolina.