Rep. Connie Morella, R-Md.

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Back at the dawn of the Republican Revolution in 1994, moderate members of the GOP were more like a support group than the ideological movers-and-shakers they fancied themselves. Conservative Republicanism was riding high in those days, raiding and routing Democratic strongholds and claiming the spoils–most notably, control of both the U.S. House and Senate for the first time in four decades.

The Tuesday Lunch Bunch–a band of moderate congressional Republicans who thought the government was supposed to facilitate reproductive rights, childcare, domestic violence prevention and environmental protections–must have been mere nuisances for Newt Gingrich, his Contract with America and the eager soldiers under his command.

They kept the faith, bided their time, meeting on Tuesdays for lunch, to commiserate and dream of what must have seemed like an impossible future of moderation, tolerance and reason. Time was on their side. America got tired of the Contract. The Tuesday Lunch Bunch no longer were mere voices in the wilderness. They became the Main Street Partnership and doing right by women is on their agenda.

What a difference the election of 2000 has made. President George W. Bush’s pledge to be actively bipartisan implies his administration will take a centrist approach and members of the Main Street Partnership, an outgrowth of the old Tuesday Lunch Bunch, say that means they will be the new must-see folks on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md., said she and her fellow moderates will be sentries for women’s rights and interests. Abortion rights, pay equity and anti-domestic violence measures are among their prominent issues.

“Essentially the election came out in a tie for the president, the Senate and for the House, which doesn’t surprise those of us in the group at all,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., a part of the moderate clique since 1992.

Moderate Lawmakers Say They Reflect Large Majority of Americans

“We are of the feeling that the overwhelming number of Americans are moderate in their political philosophy whether they have an “R” or a “D” with their name. We believe that government is not the enemy, it is a facilitator. We must have some government but we don’t want too much government. Of course, we’ve got to raise revenue to pay the bills, but we prefer lower to higher taxes.”

The Main Street Partnership boasts 55 members, including seven senators and five governors. Although it began as a refuge for the GOP’s House moderates, five senators and five Republican governors now claim membership.

Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., a charter member of the group, said the hardcore right and left have no choice but to move toward middle ground if they hope to accomplish anything in the 107th Congress.

“With the Republicans holding a slim majority in the House, the only way we’ll get crucial legislation passed is if we lead from the middle and include both sides of the aisle,” Johnson said. To that end, she has gone the moderates’ movement one better: Last month, Johnson joined nine centrist Republicans and Democrats in the formation of a new, as yet unnamed, coalition.

Despite reports that news of the Republicans’ collaboration with Democrats left House Majority Leader Tom DeLay seething, Johnson said the members “expect to play an integral role” in the new Congress.

What makes bipartisanship workable this time, say moderates, are common interests in several issues that are likely to dominate the legislative docket over the next two years–primarily education, Social Security finances and prescription drug coverage for older Americans. Indeed, Republican and Democratic leaders have cited those three programs as the ripest for bipartisan accord.

Main Street Lawmakers Also Want Campaign Finance Reform, Free Trade

The Main Street Partnership has a similar list of legislative goals, but also wants the Congress to reduce the national debt, simplify the tax code, ensure Internet privacy, expand free trade and initiate campaign finance reform.

“We’re providing needed leadership to the Republican majority to deal responsibly with these very important issues,” said Boehlert. “I used to say the last Congress was the moderates’ moment. In this Congress, the moderates’ moment has been extended and our influence has been expanded.”

In the 106th Congress, moderate Republicans were responsible for several measures that appealed to traditionally Democratic constituencies. Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., authored the Beaches Environment Assessment and Coast Health (BEACH) Act to ensure safe water in recreational areas. Rep. Connie Morella’s (R-Md.) bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act pumped $3.3 billion into the program for shelters, police training, prevention programs and legal assistance.

“If you look at what has happened over the past couple of years, that happened because we had cooperation between like-minded Republicans and Democrats,” Boehlert continued. “We passed an increase in the minimum wage because we had cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. We avoided a voucher program in education. As you look at the environment, we have provided leadership there.”

Although reproductive rights and environmental issues took a back seat to tax cuts and Social Security during the volatile presidential election, GOP moderates say they will be on the lookout for proposals that undermine a woman’s right to choose and those that would erode environmental protections.

Moderation in General Does Not Assure Perfect Harmony

Even though the Main Street group is proudly moderate, the label does not assure agreement on every issue. Some members are completely libertarian about abortion, for example, recognizing women’s reproductive rights as whole and unexceptional. Others favor restrictions like parental notification.

“We operate under the theory that we learn from each other,” Boehlert said of the Main Street group. “But we are decidedly pro-choice, decidedly pro-child care, pro-environment, pro-educational reform.”

The moderates say they will be on the lookout for ways to advance and defend women’s rights and interests.

“We are all saying we want a moderate approach, a more centrist philosophy to government,” Boehlert said. “When all is said and done, the news coverage tends to converge on those who say something far out, for want of a better description. But day in and day out, it is the moderate coalition that is really shaping public policy in America today.”

And never more so than in the days ahead, claim the moderates. They believe the revolution is theirs now and, when teamed with moderate Democrats, insist their numbers are going to be too big to ignore.

Deborah Mathis is an award-winning journalist. Formerly with the Gannett News Service, she currently is a Harvard Shorenstein fellow.

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Last Thursday’s Women’s Enews story, “New Congress Slightly More Pro-Choice”: