REPUBLICANS in Congress this week suffered an implosion unprecedented in the Bush era, as moderates in both Houses rebelled against a budget measure in which the leadership tried to combine cuts in programs for the working poor with new tax cuts for the rich.
The collapse reflected several factors, including President Bush's deepening unpopularity, the Republicans' loss of two close governors' races last Tuesday, the sidelining of Majority Leader Tom DeLay, and worries about the 2006 election. According to the latest Wall Street Journal poll, by a margin of 48 to 37 percent, voters say Democrats should take control of Congress next year. This is the widest margin for either party since the Journal started asking the question in 1996.
The collapse this week in Congress occurred on multiple fronts, and revealed multiple fault lines.
In the House, more than 20 Republican moderates, long abused by DeLay's hardball tactics, openly rebelled against the proposed budget. They declared that they would never vote for a bill that included oil drilling in Alaska. They also opposed the House leadership's clumsy effort to put cuts in food stamps, Medicaid, child support enforcement, foster care, and student loans into the same budget-reconciliation bill that extended tax breaks on capital gains and dividends.
The bill was not only opposed by long-suffering GOP moderates. Several fiscally conservative members who wanted more net deficit reduction also defected.
The House leadership initially tried to appease the moderates by dropping Alaska oil drilling. But that move alienated several conservatives. It also made the deficit problem bigger, since the bill was counting on revenues from the oil.
When the leadership gave up and postponed action, it was a personal setback for acting majority leader Roy Blunt, who hopes to get DeLay's job if he is convicted. But as moderates have tasted long suppressed freedom to vote their consciences and their districts, even a resurrected DeLay would be unlikely to regain his former power to intimidate.
Meanwhile, over in the Senate, Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley was forced to cancel a key committee mark-up session because Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine refused to go along with a similar formula of program cuts for the poor coupled with tax cuts for the rich.
Republican leaders, expecting losses in 2006, had hoped to extend the capital gains and dividend tax cuts, which are set to expire in 2008, two years to 2010. Grassley offered to cut that back to a one-year extension. But Snowe, who faces reelection next year, refused to go along.
One emblematic piece of this story is the child tax credit, a measure that Democrats and moderate Republicans added to Bush's 2001 tax cut package to help the working poor. The measure provided working families with up to $1,000 per child. But the provision is ''indexed" perversely. As enacted, it gave anyone with earned income as low as $10,000 at least some of the credit. But because of indexing for inflation, the threshold has already risen to $11,000, cutting off millions of the poorest.
Snowe supports a provision restoring the $10,000 level. One option was to add it to the latest Katrina relief bill, which includes about $7 billion in tax incentives for businesses affected by the hurricane. Snowe also promoted a similar provision in the budget bill. But Senate Republican leader Bill Frist and Grassley blocked both moves. This is especially galling, since the same bill attempts to protect the upper middle class from the indexing provisions of the Alternative Minimum Tax, but allows the poor to face erosion of the child tax credit.
In the past, Republican leaders have been able to pick off just enough Democrats to get their measures through. But this time, as Bush's popularity sinks, Democrats have been entirely unified.
This weekend, at Hofstra University, presidential scholars and veterans of the Clinton administration are gathering for a retrospective conference assessing the Clinton presidency. One thing is clear from the conference, which I am attending. Bill Clinton was a master at working in a bipartisan way, often over the opposition of many Democrats.
Bush could learn something from him. As Republicans cease to hold their own moderates, Bush faces a fateful choice. He can either face deepening isolation as he works only with right-wingers. Or he can try to bring Democrats into legislative and policy compromises, as Clinton did. If Bush persists in his bunker mentality, Republicans in Congress will continue defecting, and his isolation will only deepen.
Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, can be reached at email@example.com. His column appears regularly in the Globe.