By Martin Kady II
Republicans may trail in the polls on virtually every issue, but conservative influence is surging in both chambers of Congress as the GOP tries to find its soul again.
It's a risky strategy to tack to the right while Democrats have momentum in most polls, but Republicans clearly believe that they need to recapture their base before they recapture the majority.
When Republicans ran Congress, hardened fiscal conservatives often had a lone voice-in-the-wilderness feel about them.
Whether it was Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) filibustering on earmarks or Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) making a late-night speech about runaway government spending, the conservative caucus had a sympathetic ear from GOP leaders yet rarely prevailed on strategy or party message.
But now that they've been thrust into the minority, the conservative agitators have a front-row seat with Republican leaders, and the number of lawmakers who describe themselves as conservatives continues to grow while moderates appear to be a dying breed among Republicans on Capitol Hill.
In the House, the conservative Republican Study Committee has led the caucus in promising to sustain vetoes of children's health care legislation and spending bills.
In the Senate, the conservative Republican Steering Committee, led by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), is now being invited to weekly Republican leadership meetings on appropriations, a departure from tradition.
The top members of the Senate steering committee also had an exclusive meeting recently with President Bush, who himself is trying to launch a sort of renaissance of fiscal conservatism by vetoing popular spending bills.
The Republican Study Committee now has 104 members, up 50 percent in the past five years.
And 12 of the 15 Republican freshman lawmakers joined the group this year, a clear sign that the small rookie class of Republicans still believes in a conservative future, even while its party struggles nationally.
In contrast, the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership has seen its membership decline 20 percent, from 59 lawmakers in the last Congress to 47 this year.
And seven of those moderates are retiring, further diminishing the power of the middle.
"We don't need to be shy about what we believe in," DeMint said in an interview. "We're starting to act as Republicans around core principles, whether it's SCHIP or earmarks."
Democrats are happy to see the Republicans taking a sharp right turn, believing it makes winning independents in 2008 that much easier.
"Republicans can't try to make fiscal responsibility their mantle when they are responsible for turning record surpluses into record deficits," said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the House Democratic Caucus.
"They can't whine about earmarks when earmarks exploded under their leadership and Democrats have cut them in half and brought accountability to the earmark process."
The renewed influence by conservatives in the House and Senate Republican caucuses appears to be disconnected from recent poll results.
According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Nov. 4, Americans favor Democrats in handling the economy, 50 percent to 35 percent, and on taxes, 46 percent to 40 percent, showing that Democrats have gained an edge on fiscal issues usually dominated by Republicans.
Independents are also disgruntled. In a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll last month, 63 percent of independents disapproved of the president's performance.
Some Republican congressional aides privately admit that the energized push for conservative issues amounts to a "minority strategy" in which the party must reclaim its identity after being thrown out of power on Capitol Hill before making a serious run at regaining the majority.
"The far right is not going to bring the Republican Party back to power," said Charlie Bass, president of the Main Street Republican Partnership and a former GOP House member from New Hampshire.
"The districts that were lost were moderate districts. The far right is big on bluster but short on results."
Congressional Republican leaders, meanwhile, have been coordinating their efforts with some of the leading minds of the party, including pollsters Frank Luntz and David Winston, and Pat Toomey, president of the conservative Club for Growth.
Republican aides say they've also had strategy meetings with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
At its core, this is an effort to re-energize a party demoralized after last year's elections.
"We need to do a better job of communicating our core beliefs," said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "We had strayed from the core beliefs that got us the majority."
Still, the strategy of flexing conservative credentials at the expense of the middle carries great risk.
"The image of the party message being dictated by a small group of doctrinaire senators is not something that people at the top of the ticket are going to want," said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor and congressional expert at Rutgers University.
"This [strategy] springs up when a party is in the minority and prospects are bleak, so it's unsurprising they're having a reawakening."
Indeed, Republicans are finding it easier to create a unified front on spending, immigration and national security as the minority party because they don't have to legislate, don't control the congressional schedule and are outnumbered at virtually every turn.
"There were times in the majority when conservatives disagreed with leadership, but there have been very few of those times this year," said Hensarling, chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
"There's nothing like getting hit over the head with a two-by-four to get someone's attention. The American people thought Republicans weren't acting like Republicans."
To be sure, conservatives have always had significant influence within the Republican leadership in both chambers.
But when it came time to cut deals on spending or to craft bipartisan legislation, they often felt like they were cut out of the process.
Many Republicans still regret the arm twisting on their side of the aisle that led them to vote in favor of the Medicare prescription drug benefit in 2003, creating one of the biggest entitlement programs of all time.
Now Republicans are getting their sea legs as a minority party on Capitol Hill, and their rabble-rousers serve a useful purpose in opposing the Democratic majority, especially on spending bills.
Democrats have little chance to override any of the president's threatened vetoes of appropriations measures, thanks in large part to Republican unity on the issue.
"These fights on spending are important for us to re-establish our credentials," said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). "The Democrats have made it easy for us to engage in that fight."
Democrats have indeed been frustrated in both chambers by Republican procedural maneuvers, but they believe voters will see this as obstructionism.
"It became evident months ago that the only play left in their playbook was to attack Democrats on taxing and spending," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
"They needed to shore up what's left of their base. President Bush and Republicans have engaged in a hypocritical series of attacks on spending issues. The president only recently rediscovered the veto."