WASHINGTON -- The moment of reckoning arrived yesterday for the House Republicans who had led the revolt against their own president's budget agreement. They had the chance to offer something better, and they came up about $100 billion short.
Democratic leaders would not allow a House GOP alternative to be offered on the floor because the Republicans refused to propose any sort of tax increase and couldn't figure out how to meet the $500 billion, five-year deficit-cutting target without one.
"Of course not," said Representative Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., House minority whip and leader of the rebel band, blithely acknowledging that without a tax increase the goal could not be reached unless they cut too deeply into government services. "That would be irresponsible."
From Mr. Gingrich's point of view, though, it doesn't matter. He and his fellow conservatives could still savor their sweet moment of power and revenge when the president's agreement first came up for a House vote two weeks ago. With a single blow, they not only KO'd a distasteful budget proposal but also struck back for years of perceived arrogance and neglect from presidents of their party and from the Democratic majority in Congress.
Further, they stood by their no-new-taxes pledge -- and they figure that will serve them a lot better at the polls than accepting the combination of gasoline, liquor and other tax increases proposed in the budget package.
"If [the budget package] is more clearly seen to be a product of the Democrats in 1992, that will be a big advantage to us," Mr. Gingrich said.
But for Republicans interested in participating in the governing role of Congress, the cost of their grand gesture may be high.
The GOP ranks in Congress, already splintered between House and Senate, conservatives and moderates, ideologues and pragmatists, are now also embittered. In thumbing their noses at the budget summit agreement, the rebel Republicans also embarrassed longtime House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill.
For President Bush, the GOP standard-bearer who was riding high just a few weeks ago, the budget defeat not only highlighted his own reversal on the tax issue but also touched off a chain of miscues, misstatements and unfortunate events that seem to have seriously marred his image.
"The composite picture is of a president who is shrinking," said Representative Constance A. Morella, R-Md.-8th, a moderate who supported the budget agreement but was outraged at Mr. Bush's decision to shut down the federal government when the deadline passed without a deal.
And while the final shape of the budget agreement that #i ultimately emerges from this agonizing process is unknown, it will almost certainly be less attractive from the point of view of the House Republicans than the one they rejected.
"The income tax hikes will probably be higher, the entitlement cuts won't be as deep, there'll be no growth incentives and no budget reform," grumbled a Bush administration official who took part in the four months of negotiations on the rejected package.
Meanwhile, the liberal Democrats who propelled just such a package through the House last night were looking like big winners.
Many of them were as unhappy as Mr. Gingrich with the budget agreement their leaders negotiated with President Bush, and they also voted against it. Neither party was able to muster a majority to pass the proposal.
But the difference is that the liberal Democrats in the House now have a solid entry in the budget sweepstakes, and the conservative House Republicans don't.
The Democratic plan -- which includes a tax rate increase for the rich, a capital gains tax break aimed at the middle class, a much smaller cut in Medicare benefits than the summit agreement's and no gasoline tax increase -- would be the House's starting point in negotiations with the Senate. A more left-leaning proposal than the summit agreement is also under consideration there, although it has been moderated by the influence of Senate Republicans.
After being bashed for years by Republicans who dismissed their philosophy as "tax and spend," House Democrats chanting "fairness" and "tax the rich" now feel the skirmish over sloganizing is also going their way.
"There's a whole new esprit de corps in the Democratic caucus," said Representative George Miller, D-Calif., one of the liberal Democrats who voted against the summit agreement because of its heavy tax burden on the working class. "I think people came to view that definitely as a victory."
And so the House Republicans, who had more clout in the budget summit than their numbers earn them in the normal legislative process, returned yesterday to their usual status as critics rather than participants.
"House Republicans are not players in the budget anymore because they took themselves out of it," said a lobbyist with close ties to Mr. Michel.