Republicans plot coup in Congress

August 28, 1994|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- On Sept. 27, hundreds of Republican members of Congress and congressional candidates will crowd onto the steps of the Capitol for an audacious publicity stunt -- the unveiling of their agenda for the first 100 days of a Republican-controlled Congress.

That's awfully brazen, in light of the fact that Republicans haven't mustered a majority in both houses of Congress in 40 years.

But for the first time in a generation, the talk of a GOP takeover of Capitol Hill is real. With the 1994 elections 10 weeks away, Republicans stand a decent chance of gaining control of the Senate. More surprisingly, they have an outside shot at taking the House of Representatives as well.

"Clinton is so unpopular, it is possible that it could happen," says Brad Coker, an independent pollster whose Columbia, Md., firm is questioning voters in more than 40 states this fall.

Republicans seem nearly as stunned as Democrats at the prospect.

"I've never been this close to Election Day and thought we could even approach taking over both houses," says Haley Barbour, the Republican national chairman.

"There is an outside but real chance that we could win the 40 seats," the number Republicans need to take over the House.

Even if they don't, Republicans are likely to be part of an expanded conservative coalition that could effectively control all major action in Congress for the rest of President Clinton's term.

The recent House battle over crime legislation, where Republicans forced significant concessions on Mr. Clinton, may have been a preview of the next two years.

Democrats hold a 256-178 seat House advantage, but even Democrats concede they could lose between 15 and 30 seats in November. A Republican gain of 17 seats would boost the GOP to its highest level in the House since the late 1950s.

In the Senate

In the Senate, a Republican pickup of at least three or four Senate seats appears likely, with a GOP gain of seven needed to take that body away from the Democrats, who have a 56-44 edge.

At this point, no one in either party seems quite sure what a Republican-run Congress would be like. Though Republicans held the Senate during the 1980s, there hasn't been a GOP majority in the House since the first two years of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration. None of the Republicans from those days is left in office (91-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was still a Democrat back then), and some of the current crop of House Republicans weren't even born yet.

If Republicans took charge, Rep. Newt Gingrich, the fast-talking Georgian with the prematurely gray hair, would reign as speaker of the House, while Sen. Bob Dole would presumably take charge in the Senate. Just as important, the entire infrastructure of Congress -- the chairmanship of every committee and subcommittee, all the key staff positions, down to deciding the decorating schemes for the Capitol -- would fall into Republican hands.

Democrats horrified

It is a prospect too horrifying for most Democrats to contemplate. Losing control would be a devastating blow to their party, whose inability to keep its congressional forces together has fed a perception that Clinton and Co. is unable of govern.

"Obviously, the Democratic Party would have to do a lot of soul-searching. And we would have to have a more forceful, combative leader than Speaker Foley if we were in the minority," says Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who predicts there won't be a Republican takeover this fall.

Some Republicans would be just as happy if there weren't. They worry that their party isn't prepared to assume power yet.

"I'm not sure that most Republicans have even thought about it," says William Kristol, a prominent GOP strategist.

After 40 years as the "out" party, House Republicans lack governing experience. While some meekly adapted to their minority status over the years ("a bunch of losers who were afraid to win," as one senior GOP leader put it), others, including Mr. Gingrich, became partisan Congress-bashers, whose purpose was to obstruct and embarrass the Democratic majority.

Agendas take time

Developing an agenda for the country takes time.

Indeed, the idea that Republicans might actually have to govern does not appear to have sunk in fully on the man charged with drafting the 10-point platform for next month's Capitol ceremony, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas.

"It's hard for me to sit down here and tick all these things off," he said in an interview.

Mr. Armey, who would be in line to become majority leader in a Republican-run House, says a GOP Congress would act on a number of politically popular measures that the Democrats have managed to block, including a balanced budget amendment and term limits for members of Congress.

"I think there would be a great deal of change," he says. In terms of getting things done in Washington, he added, "I believe it is more important to have Republican control of Congress than of the presidency."

GOP priorities

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