Republicans turn to daunting task of governing nation Mandate comes with responsibility, GOP leaders say ELECTION 1994

November 10, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The tide of voter anger that cost the Democrats control of Congress and the governorships of 11 states spared every GOP incumbent and gave the Republicans what they called an unmistakable mandate to lead.

But even as exuberant GOP leaders welcomed a new convert, Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, into the fold yesterday, they said that they have a big responsibility to do a much better job of governing than the Democrats have done.

"We won the election because I think the American people want to give us the opportunity," said Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who will return to the post of majority leader that he last held in 1986.

"If we say we've gotten the message and we don't produce, we'll get kicked out for a long time again."

Since no GOP members in the House, and only two dozen in the Senate, have ever been in the majority before, Mr. Dole is one of a relative handful who know what it's like to be in charge.

Those who do warn that the challenge will be daunting.

"We got a taste of what it was like to govern in the early 1980s, and it was a mouthful. It's going to be for the Republicans this time, too," said Michael Johnson, a former Republican congressional aide.

Nearly complete returns from Tuesday's elections raised the total of new House seats won by the GOP to at least 48 -- the largest gain for the Republican Party since 1946 -- giving the GOP control of the House for the first time in four decades.

The Republicans' dearest prize was the eastern Washington seat of veteran Democratic Rep. Thomas S. Foley, who became the first House speaker since 1860 to be tossed out by his constituents.

But other powerful, seemingly permanent, Democratic fixtures were swept away as well, including Rep. Jack Brooks, the colorful Texan who ruled the House Judiciary Committee with a firm gavel, and Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois.

'A historic change'

"It is such a historic change that it's almost impossible to believe just how big it really is," said Rep. Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who is in line to become the new House speaker in January. Mr. Gingrich, whose confrontational campaign to unite and energize the party is largely responsible for the GOP victory, added: "I think it's going to take a while for it all to sink in.

Mr. Gingrich moved swiftly, however, to notify Mr. Foley yesterday that he had launched a "transition process" that will include an inventory and audit of House offices. He asked the speaker to take steps to "ensure that no documents, paper or electronic documents will be removed or destroyed."

With the party switch of conservative Mr. Shelby of Alabama, the GOP's gain of Senate seats grew to nine, giving Republicans a 53-47 majority in the new Senate.

Mr. Shelby's defection from Democratic ranks has been rumored for years, and followed a highly publicized spat with President Clinton last year over raising taxes. Mr. Shelby had voted infrequently with the Democratic administration on contentious tTC issues and had been courted for a decade by Republican leaders.

The senator told reporters at the Capitol that he had waited to make his move until after the Republicans gained control of the Senate, because "I wanted to strengthen their numbers for what they're trying to do."

But it wasn't clear yesterday just what the Republicans will try to do with their new power on Capitol Hill, and tension among the leaders of the GOP was already evident.

Mr. Dole ticked off a tentative agenda for 1995, including a balanced budget amendment, term limits, welfare reform and congressional reforms.

Contract for America

Many of those items were included in the "Contract for America," which Mr. Gingrich calls "our bible. . . . It is our guiding set of principles for the first 100 days, and it will be a template for what we do as a Republican majority in the months and years ahead."

But Mr. Dole admitted that he wasn't committed to every item in that package, particularly term limits for House members, which he fears could work to the disadvantage of lawmakers from small states who depend on seniority to advance.

Meanwhile, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who like Mr. Dole is contemplating a bid for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, seemed intent in setting the party's agenda himself.

He suggested that Republicans would seek across-the-board cuts in spending for housing, education, and health and human service programs. He also declared that the 1994 election had repudiated the efforts of Sen. John C. Chafee, a moderate Republican from Rhode Island who had sought to fashion a bipartisan approach to health care reform.

The Texan called Mr. Chafee part of the GOP's "little old bitty atrophied left wing," which Mr. Gramm made clear is out of step with the party's dominant, conservative majority.

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