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WASHINGTON (AP) – When Tom DeLay and other top House conservatives recently urged the administration to ban federal funds for embryonic stem cell research, Republican moderates quickly jumped in with their own statement saying such research must be allowed to continue.

The moderates say such an open airing of differences with their own party leaders shows how confident they are of influencing policy despite their small numbers.

“Our batting average has been pretty good,” said Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y. “More often than not the moderate position has prevailed.”

So far this year moderate Republican lawmakers, often working with Democrats, played a role in scaling back the size of the administration’s proposed tax cut and in passing major education measures without the divisive inclusion of private school vouchers.

In the Senate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and centrist Republicans helped pass campaign finance legislation. GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine moderate, was pivotal in nailing down a final agreement on patients’ rights legislation.

In the House, moderates have taken issue with initial White House positions on energy and the environment, with apparent results. Last week, after several House votes opposing White House plans to expand oil and gas drilling, the administration significantly reduced proposed drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We have not lost an environmental vote,” said Boehlert, a leading GOP environmentalist.

Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., said the decision of his fellow moderate, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, to leave the GOP and become an independent, while unfortunate, “really kicked us into high gear. … It really energized us.”

Jeffords’ defection put Democrats in control of the Senate, and made it more incumbent on the White House to reach out to the moderate wing of the party.

The conservative leaders of the House – Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas – are “off on their own,” but the White House has become a better listener, said Houghton, co-founder of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of about 60 moderate lawmakers and governors.

Moderates have talked to Bush about patients’ rights and met with Vice President Dick Cheney to urge that conservation and renewable fuels be a bigger part of the administration energy policy.

“The administration has been terrific,” Houghton said. “They call right back.” He and others also praised House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., for keeping his door open to moderates.

The Main Street group decided to weigh in early on the embryonic stem cell issue, Boehlert said, because it was clear the White House was divided between some conservatives who say destroying embryos is morally wrong and others who contend that stem cell research could lead to cures for deadly diseases.

“We’re a little ahead of the party in social policy,” Boehlert said. “We’re trying to lead rather than follow.”

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In the coming weeks, moderates could help determine the fate of two major bills coming before the House, campaign finance overhaul and patients’ rights.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., a member of the Main Street group, leads the smaller number of Republicans working with Democrats to pass campaign finance legislation similar to the bill the Senate passed. With some Democratic liberals unhappy with the bill, the support of Republicans becomes even more important.

Similarly, Main Street members Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., and Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, will be at the center of the House debate on the rights of patients to sue their HMOs.

Houghton said Northeastern Republicans and other moderates want to be part of the GOP team but “we have an obligation to speak out” when their ideas are not reflected in policies crafted by the conservatives who dominate the party.

Party leaders ignore moderates at their own peril, he said. “From a practical standpoint, they have got to look at the Northeastern Republicans. If they go, the House goes.”


Republican Main Street Partnership:

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