WASHINGTON -- How much freedom is a good thing for a Republican? The question is being debated with some heat in the House of Representatives, where two Maryland Republicans -- Reps. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County and Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore -- have emerged as the chief spokesmen for rival camps.
Ehrlich, a junior whip who seeks votes for Republican priorities, argues that too much independence has led to an unruly session this year. The slender House Republican majority means that a handful of dissidents can derail the party's priorities there.
Along with a dozen colleagues, Ehrlich met twice recently with House Speaker Newt Gingrich to suggest that, after the fall elections, Republicans strip frequent dissenters of chairmanships they now hold on committees and subcommittees that draft federal laws and determine how taxpayer dollars are spent.
That sparked a critical response from Gilchrest, known by colleagues for his whimsy and for moderate stances on environmental policy that often cut against the Republican grain.
"That's Bobby's opinion [on how to] create a better system," Gilchrest said. "I just have a problem with that."
Gilchrest wrote a letter to Gingrich that attracted about 25 Republican signatures, including that of Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, urging the speaker not to put party discipline above free debate. "Our democratic process must continue to ensure that any individual member can become a responsible advocate for what they believe," Gilchrest wrote in the letter, dated June 23.
But many Republicans were particularly galled by the move of some moderates such as Gilchrest to vote with House Democrats in a procedural maneuver to force a vote by the full House on campaign finance proposals that had, with Gingrich's blessing, been tied up in a committee. Embarrassed party leaders allowed the measure to be debated, but it has languished on the House floor.
"I understand the frustration Bob Ehrlich has, and I do think there are many people in the conference that feel like we ought to have a greater sense of unity," House Majority Leader Dick Armey said. "These are majority skills that we are learning."
Ehrlich said he had become increasingly frustrated with lawmakers from safe seats who defy Gingrich publicly on policy but still enjoy influential positions on Capitol Hill.
"It had almost nothing to do with philosophy, but it does have everything to do with the responsibility of being the governing party," said Ehrlich, who circulated a letter to GOP colleagues that he said attracted 150 signatures, including Gingrich's. It was important, he said, "to get some folks who typically go outside the process to realize that was not the way to get things done around here."
Said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Delaware Republican who signed Gilchrest's letter of dissent: "We should not give up our right to vote for our districts as we see fit on anything."
Pub Date: 6/27/98