Tom Curry  /  msnbc.com
Rep. Jim Gerlach, one of 45 Republicans who voted to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program, will be a top Democratic target in the 2008 elections.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/3/2007 2:23:27 PM ET 2007-10-03T18:23:27

The number 146 may define politics for the next 15 months, or perhaps for the next five years.

One hundred forty-six is the number of House members needed to prevent an override of a president’s veto.

The Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to override a veto.

No one knows this math better than Republican Whip Roy Blunt, the House GOP leader in charge of keeping track of how his members will vote.

“What I wanted to ensure is that we had at least 146 Republicans voting against the bill,” Blunt said after the House voted last week to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

President Bush vetoed the CHIP expansion Wednesday, saying, it "does not fully fund all its new spending, obscuring the true cost of the bill’s expansion" of CHIP. And he said "it raises taxes on working Americans."

A day earlier, Blunt said, "The Republicans will sustain the president's veto."

Democratic House leaders are postponing a veto override vote for two weeks, until Oct. 18.

In the meantime, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is hammering with radio ads and robo-calls eight GOP House members who voted against expanding CHIP.

Among the targeted Republicans are:

  • Steve Chabot of Ohio, who won re-election last year with only 52 percent,
  • Randy Kuhl of New York, who won with 51 percent,
  • Tim Walberg of Michigan, who got 50 percent in a five-person race.

Enough GOP members to foil override
Even though Blunt came out on the short end of the 265-159 vote to expand CHIP, the whip was celebrating last week because 151 of his 201 Republicans (joined by eight Democrats) gave him enough to avert a veto override.

“We had exactly what we needed,” Blunt said. “It sends a message to Democrats that, at least as long as there’s a Republican president with these numbers in the Congress, they have to deal with Republicans on these important issues.”

Blunt can afford to lose about 55 of his 201 GOP members and still win veto override battles.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday, "I'm hopeful we can override (Bush's) veto. We need about 15 Republicans" who voted against the bill to switch their votes and vote to override Bush's veto.

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Hoyer added, "I think we're going to get a good number of the eight Democrats" who voted “no” on CHIP expansion to switch and vote for the veto override.

“The president finds himself isolated” on the CHIP issue, argued House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel last week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi added, “The president will find himself alone” on CHIP.

As long as Bush has 146 House Republicans, not only is the president not alone, he has the power to force Democratic congressional leaders to negotiate changes in bills.

In practice, Blunt will often need fewer than 146 of his members to stick with him, because on many votes, not all House members show up. And with two vacancies, the current size of the House is 433, so Blunt will often need about 142 or 143 to sustain a Bush veto.

Blunt understood, of course, that some of his members who face tough races in 2008 would need to bail out on the GOP leaders on the CHIP vote.

No need to break arms
“Once we get to the 146 Republicans, we’re not going to break somebody’s arm who thinks this is a hard vote for them to explain at home (in their district),” he said.

Now what fate awaits the 45 House Republicans who voted with most of the House Democrats for the CHIP expansion?

Many of these Republicans also voted against Bush on federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.

It is exactly these Republicans, most of them from Northern and Midwestern districts, whom Democrats are targeting in the 2008 elections. They include members such as:

  • Jim Gerlach, Pennsylvania
  • Mark Kirk, Illinois
  • Jim Walsh, New York
  • Heather Wilson, New Mexico

All four survived close races last November; Wilson kept her seat by only 861 votes out of more than 200,000 votes cast. All four represent districts that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry carried in 2004.

They and Republicans like them face a political version of Darwinian natural selection.

Will the GOP centrists survive in 2008?
If the Democrats next year defeat all the most vulnerable House Republicans, most centrist Republicans will have been purged.

The GOP survivors left in the House would be nearly all from the Sunbelt, and quite conservative on social and economic issues. 

"A loss of GOP moderates from the Frostbelt will mirror the loss of Democratic moderates from the South in the 1990s," said Professor John Pitney, who teaches American politics at Claremont McKenna College. "The result will be to sharpen party polarization. Northeastern and Midwestern Republicans used to occupy the center along with Southern Democrats."

If such Republicans are defeated in 2008, Pitney said, "the center will be largely barren."

Yet there would likely be enough Republicans left, at least 150, to sustain presidential vetoes.

And that would matter if a GOP presidential candidate wins in 2008.

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