07.28.11

The Incredible Shrinking GOP Moderates

The Republicans’ Tuesday Group has lost members and clout, but as Eleanor Clift reports, it hangs on as a refuge for less conservative lawmakers.

With the debt clock ticking ever louder, some 49 House Republicans who consider themselves center-right moderates met for lunch Tuesday in a conference room in the basement of the Capitol. Over Quiznos sandwiches and salad, they reviewed the bidding on several pieces of legislation, saving the debt-ceiling crisis for last. A few members had some technical questions, but all supported what John Boehner was doing to cobble together something that could pass the House. 

“If they stay even reasonably close together, they can stop the Republican majority from doing anything stupid,” says former Republican congressman Tom Davis. “They’re the backbone for Boehner in trying to forge some kind of compromise. These are your policymaking people who have been picked to govern.” 

The Tea Party makes a lot more noise, but the 49 members who gather weekly and call themselves the Tuesday Group are, for the most part, veteran lawmakers such as Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Missouri Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, who cochairs the group. They are in positions to have considerable influence, though in the current partisan environment, there is no apparent reward for moderation.

The group has withered over the years after peaking at about 70 members in the mid-1990s. Redistricting has tended to protect more conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, with the rise of hyperpartisanship depleting the moderate ranks of both parties.

With another election looming and the Tea Party threatening to “primary” Republicans who stray from their agenda, moderates are adjusting to the new political reality, and it’s not pretty. Earlier this month Upton voted to repeal a law requiring more-energy-efficient lightbulbs, despite the fact that he had been one of its principal sponsors. “Do you know what he got in his last primary? Fifty-six percent,” says Davis. “He had a primary scare.”

For someone of Upton’s rank and power, that was cause to worry. The lightbulb repeal failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to overcome an expected presidential veto, so the law is still in effect. But the way Washington works, Upton can claim he saw the light on getting government out of consumer decisions.

This is a place to feel safe and not be judged.

It’s hard to find any particular area where the moderates have exerted influence, but members who attend the weekly meetings prize the time spent together as a safe harbor from the partisan rancor that has escalated not only between the parties, but within the Republican caucus. “This is a place to feel safe and not be judged,” says a Tuesday Group member who did not want to be quoted, noting there is “a bar for purity” in the much larger Republican Study Committee, which has 174 of the most conservative members of the GOP caucus, and which meets next door to the Tuesday Group in a much larger conference room, making the comparison all the more obvious. 

Emerson agrees that the Tuesday Group offers a respite from harsh partisanship and a place where “we all trust each other and then you feel safe.” Members don’t lobby each other or take a unified position on bills, though they are currently polling to see if members would like to craft legislation, which could thrust the group into a more assertive role. As a longtime moderate, Emerson marvels at how far to the right Republicans have moved, recounting a recent conversation with a colleague she regards as very conservative. “In my district, they consider me a RINO,” or Republican in Name Only, he told her.

Former Republican congressman James Leach, appointed by President Obama to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, calls the Tuesday Group “constructionists,” and says its members play a leavening role in the party. Leach was active in several moderate groups during his 30 years in the House, losing his bid for reelection in 2006. Now 68, he recalls that when he was young, "conservative" meant Barry Goldwater and the Chamber of Commerce. Today, the pro-choice Goldwater would be considered a liberal Republican, “and the most appalled group in this whole thing”—meaning the debt impasse—“is the Chamber. They are going nuts.” 

Against the firepower of the Tea Party right, the Tuesday Group is a genteel descendant of earlier Republican groups like SOS, and Chowder and Marching, from which the party drew its leaders. They were selective, and secret, and members convened over Jack Daniel’s in each other’s offices in the late afternoon. That era ended with Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution in 1994, when the GOP captured the House chamber for the first time in 40 years. The Tuesday Group emerged from the wreckage, accommodating a variety of views under the banner of moderation. Dick Cheney was a member when he was in Congress.

With the evolution of the GOP, the Tuesday Group has no power, says Tom Mann, a veteran Congress-watcher at the Brookings Institution. “None, absolutely zero, zippo,” he says. “It’s sad but it’s true. The handful that remain lie low and change positions as needed. The party is much more homogenous, and the center of gravity has moved sharply to the right.” Mann attributes much of the shift to what he calls “the relentless march of the antitax pledge,” coupled with an uncompromising ideology that confounds more traditional Republicans just as it does Obama and the Democrats.