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High Anxiety

If the Capitol physician tested all the House Republicans these days, I wouldn't be surprised if the results showed that their blood pressure has shot up from the readings of six months ago -- or even three months ago. House Republicans find themselves buffeted by a wide array of emotions, most notably angst and uncertainty, but also frustration.

The source of their frustration is easy to see. Five months into the 109th Congress -- with class-action-litigation restrictions and bankruptcy measures already passed and signed into law, and with a highway bill and energy package advancing -- House Republicans feel that their accomplishments are being overshadowed by extraneous events: the Iraqi elections; the Terri Schiavo case; the Senate fights over judicial appointees and John Bolton's nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations; and last, but certainly not least, scandals involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. No wonder Congress's job-approval ratings are low.

Those ratings indicate that the public is completely unaware of what Congress has achieved. If voters remain unaware, House Republicans have reason to worry.

Then there is the uncertainty. Over the next three and a half years, the vast majority of the posts with the greatest responsibility in the House will be turning over. Very likely, all three top Republican leadership posts will change hands, as will 15 of the House's 21 committee chairmanships. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., is expected to retire after the 2008 elections, if not before. And DeLay's mounting ethical, legal, and even re-election problems strongly suggest that he will not be in the GOP's House leadership in January 2009.

There's probably a 75 percent chance that DeLay will retire, resign, or lose before then. A quick exit by DeLay would set up a fight for the job of majority leader, and the winner would almost certainly become the next speaker. If DeLay manages to hang on until 2009, the leader and speaker posts could open up simultaneously, creating quite a different succession battle.

The No. 3 Republican in the House, Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, will probably try to move up to either majority leader or speaker, but House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner of Ohio would be an equally strong contender for either job. Some observers suggest that National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds of New York could jump into the fight for the No. 2 position. The speakership might be a bridge too far for Reynolds.

Members of Congress in general, and congressional Republicans in particular, tend to be hierarchical -- meaning that the person next in line is most likely to clinch an open slot. That would give the edge to Blunt. But Boehner, elected in 1990, has six more years of experience in Congress than Blunt. Both have leadership experience: Blunt as whip, and Boehner as chairman of the House Republican Conference from 1994 to 1998. Reynolds is certainly seen as a rising star, but while his backers push him as an alternative to Blunt and Boehner, others suggest that Reynolds, now in his fourth term, is not ready to be leader or speaker and would be well advised to aim at the third-highest rung on the GOP's House leadership ladder.

Simultaneous turnover in all three top leadership posts is quite rare. And beyond that turmoil, the term limitations imposed on committee chairmen in 1995 after Republicans took control of the House mean that 10 of the 21 standing committees will be getting new chairmen after the 2006 election, and another five will get new leaders after the 2008 election.

That is an enormous wave of turnover, and it is already creating an equally enormous amount of uncertainty in the Republican conference. At least one thing is certain, though: With all of the jockeying for leadership posts and committee chairmanships, the fundraising pace for all of the contenders will be fast and furious. And a bunch of lobbyists and their spouses will have fingernail marks on their ankles from being shaken upside-down for cash. No doubt, donors will have to be mindful of their own overall contribution limits.

Another cause of GOP anxiety is that in four of the five midterm elections since World War II that were held during a president's second term, the party in the White House got shellacked. Today's House Republicans are watching many, if not all, of the factors that led to those losses being replicated before their very eyes. Democratic candidates from coast to coast have already taken up the mantra "arrogant, abusive, and out of touch" -- stolen straight from the Republicans' own 1994 playbook. That chant is starting to get under the skin of Republicans, particularly those who were around in 1994.

As if all of this weren't enough, President Bush and his White House team are sorely testing the House Republicans' confidence. Some longtime Washington insiders suggest that Bush's habit of speaking to carefully screened, friendly audiences, combined with his well-known disdain for public-opinion polls, has left him detached and falsely optimistic. Bush's high degree of self-confidence, particularly since his re-election, has led the White House to make faulty decisions, critics say.

This certainly isn't the first time that a president and his inner circle have been accused of being isolated, of living in a political Neverland that has little relationship to reality. Bush's May 31 press conference only intensified the impression that the president is out of touch.

House Republicans seem aware of the public's growing dissatisfaction with the agendas of the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. Moreover, the current fight over stem-cell research, combined with the Schiavo case and the battle over judicial nominations, has exposed a growing rift between the "secular" Main Street/Wall Street/country club Republicans, who are primarily interested in economic issues and in creating a better climate for business, and the "sacred" Republicans, who are motivated largely by social and cultural issues. Economic and social conservatives have kept a pretty united front for a long time. But now there seems to be a backlash within the party against the cultural conservatives. And we may soon see a greater alignment between the party's economic conservatives and its moderates.

Pessimists within the GOP privately fear a high-profile political-corruption trial during the 2006 midterm election campaign, with high-ranking Republican lawmakers being called as witnesses, or even targets -- thus depressing Republican turnout and galvanizing Democrats. Such a turn of events would create the possibility of significant GOP losses in the House, in the Senate, and among the party's governors. GOP optimists take solace in the relatively small number of House and Senate seats that are likely to be in play, making a Democratic takeover of either chamber quite unlikely. Although American politics never remains static for 18 months, and a lot may change before November 2006, the changes won't necessarily be positive for the GOP.

Listening to congressional Republicans these days, one seldom hears denial. Very few seem to believe that things are fine; party members disagree mainly over how serious the problems are. One danger for the GOP is that all of this is taking place during candidate-recruitment season and at a time when veteran members contemplating retirement are reaching a critical point in their decision-making. Problems that crop up early in an election cycle can take on momentum, resulting in more retirements and recruitment failures for the troubled party, more veterans on the other side of the aisle deciding to stick around, and more would-be challengers deciding to make the race.

Will the situation worsen for House Republicans? There's no way to know. But they certainly are in a more precarious place than they were on the day after the last election.

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