Republican House members are anxious to capitalize on Bush's popularity

March 17, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Sun Staff Correspondent

PLAINSBORO, N.J. -- Three weeks after George Bush liberated Kuwait, Republicans have come to an unnerving conclusion: They don't know what to do next, and they're not sure their president knows, either.

That, at least, was one of the conclusions reached after a two-day conference here where more than 100 GOP House members ate, caucused and bickered over what their party's domestic agenda ought to be.

"Agenda, which agenda?" asked Representative David Dreier of California. "There are more than 100 agendas here."

Thus the president's party faces a lurking problem as it tries to use the commander-in-chief's clout to force Republican bills through a Democrat-dominated Congress. With the president's attention turned to international matters, many Republicans contend that the White House has failed to set comparably robust policy priorities for the home front. Lacking clear direction from the Bush administration, they say they can't agree among themselves about how to step in and fill the void.

In a valedictory, postwar address before an almost worshipful joint meeting of Congress, Mr. Bush challenged lawmakers to adopt a plateful of domestic policy legislation in the following 100 days. But he only mentioned two bills by name -- an election-season crime package boasting a streamlined death penalty appeals process and a transportation infrastructure bill.

"We have a domestic agenda, with all due respect," said a testy White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, citing the administration's recently announced and heavily criticized energy plan. "There's a solid agenda out there. You got a solid chunk of it passed last year."

Yet many of the Republicans here grumbled that the task of creating a concrete list of legislative objectives had fallen to them.

"You know, there's something to be said for striking when the iron's hot, having a list of things and keeping the pressure up -- moving right down that list," said Representative Robert H. Michel of Illinois, the House's Republican leader. "I don't know that that's what's happening."

Few of the gathered Republicans were willing to criticize Mr. Bush publicly -- not surprising, considering that the president's popularity ratings have surpassed those of any president in the history of scientific poll-taking. But private conversations and coded on-the-record statements reveal an unhappiness with the White House's inattention to domestic matters that rivaled the euphoria over the administration's prosecution of the war.

"Let me put it this way: In 1981, a similar group of Republicans would have clearly understood that we should move forward with a comprehensive plan to lower taxes and spending," said Representative Vin Weber of Minnesota. "Today, there is no such coherent message to Republicans about what it is our party stands for."

If Republican House members expected that message to emanate from their weekend conference, they must have been disappointed. Scarcely an hour into the first session, the group began to fracture along the moderate-vs.-conservative fault lines that have long limited its clout in Congress.

One speaker, conservative theorist George Gilder, got hearty laughs and applause while listing the social pathologies of broken homes. "Single-parent families produce crime, drugs, violence, disease and Democrats," he said. Then, he went on to suggest that Republicans support only those social welfare programs whose benefits were directed to families with stay-at-home mothers.

"I don't think that's a banner I'll march under," said Representative Jim Leach of Iowa.

Nor was there much to suggest that the strained relationship between conservative Republicans in the House and Bush Republicans in the White House would soon be soothed.

Mr. Sununu attended the conference's Friday session and made the rounds -- for example, privately warning several Republicans that the president would veto any energy plan that smacked of rationing. He bristled visibly when a reporter asked him about complaints among conservatives that the administration had failed to advance ground-breaking initiatives to sharpen distinctions between Republicans and Democrats and, conservative strategists believe, encourage the public to elect more Republican candidates.

"Conservatives will tell you there are many bills to that effect," he snapped, citing the crime bill, the highway bill and child-care legislation adopted in the fall.

But when one prominent conservative lawmaker was told of Mr. Sununu's comments, he sighed in resignation. "You see why we're getting so depressed?" he asked. "This has become an administration for better management of the status quo."

Which is where a few hard-driving Republican House members believe opportunity lies. Representative Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the House Republican whip, argued that events had conspired to give House Republicans a significant role in the formulation of party policy. That, in turn, would enable the Republican minority to fill out its ranks in next year's pivotal elections.

"There are more former House members in a presidential Cabinet than at any time in history," he said. "That's a lot of lines of communication we have to the power centers of the administration. George Bush is the kind of president who will line up behind a policy and give it the full weight of his presidency once it has had a chance to bubble up through the ranks. We're here to get things bubbling."

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