GOP faces twin obstacles: split party and filibusters

November 14, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- OK, America. The Republicans are ready to give you what they think you want: lower taxes, smaller government, regulators off your back. The IRS, social spending and smoking bans are out. Tax deductions, welfare reform and school prayer are in.

As the GOP takes control of Congress for the first time in four decades, the new conservative agenda its candidates carried into election battle is about to be translated into a form that can become law.

Even President Clinton sounds agreeable to parts of the Republican agenda. With some black humor arising from the ashes of Tuesday's apparent repudiation of his presidency, Mr. Clinton joked: "Their term-limits proposal is looking better to me every day."

But now, face-to-face with their enormous task, the Republican leaders are already lowering expectations about how quickly they can achieve results.

"These are real changes; it's going to be hard to do," said Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the soon-to-be speaker of the House who plans to keep his 434 colleagues in session six days a week.

Standing in the Republicans' way are two major obstacles: Democratic filibusters in the Senate, where the GOP majority is seven votes short of the minimum needed to cut off debate.

And political tensions within their own party that might destroy unity on the tough decisions.

The internal disputes may be hardest to overcome.

"This is a great opportunity for Republicans, but they are going to have to take some risks," said former Sen. Warren B. Rudman, the New Hampshire Republican who in 1992 quit Congress in disgust at its refusal to balance the bloated federal budget.

"If they try to play it safe, they'll lose it, and the voters will start seeking a third party." Taking risks, said Mr. Rudman, means more than making cosmetic changes.

And it's not enough, he said, merely to avoid the cowardly act of cutting taxes without a spending cut to match.

It means taking on the special interests that have been paying "protection money" to the Democrats for years in the form of campaign contributions, and shrinking government by getting rid benefits for rich people who don't need them, said David Keating, executive director of the National Taxpayers Union.

Edward Crane, president of the conservative Cato Institute, is confident that the Republican Congress will hasten the shrinking of the federal government.

But he added, "It's not at all clear . . . how far the [Republicans] are willing to go to turn things around."

Intraparty Republican battles are expected over seemingly easily settled problems, such as slashing crop subsidies for wealthy farmers.

And the chairman-to-be of the powerful House Ways and Means committee, Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, pledged last week to eliminate the taxes the Democrats imposed last year on Social Security recipients with substantial outside incomes.

Too much for Gingrich

In fact, Mr. Archer wants to do the unimaginable: Do away with the income tax entirely, and replace it with a national sales tax. That was too much even for Mr. Gingrich.

"I've always told people my friends are more conservative than I am," quipped Mr. Gingrich, who has long been the darling of the far right.

Early indications suggest that the Republicans on Capitol Hill will be led by a triumvirate of Mr. Gingrich, Bob Dole of Kansas, who will become Senate majority leader, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

Mr. Gramm, who is leaving the job of Republican Senate Campaign Committee chairman, has no official portfolio, except that he and Mr. Dole are both expected to seek the party's presidential nomination in 1996.

Over the past two years, that competition has had the effect of pulling Mr. Dole -- a centrist and compromiser at heart -- closer to the far right of his party, where Mr. Gramm sits as anchor.

Dole dislikes both men

Mr. Dole doesn't care much for Mr. Gramm or Mr. Gingrich and appears far less ready than they are to commit his party to specific actions. The obvious friction among them poses a threat to the Republicans' legislative agenda.

"I think we have to come together and try to reach some consensus and not be going off in too many directions," Mr. Dole said last week in a tart reference to Mr. Gramm's latest round of pronouncements.

Republican leaders hope to minimize early internal squabbles by XTC avoiding the social issues that divide them, such as abortion rights and gun control.

Some individual Republicans are expected to try to tighten abortion restrictions and to lift the new ban on most assault weapons. But those efforts won't be promoted by the party leadership, GOP staffers say.

The starting point for action in the House will be the "Contract with America" that Mr. Gingrich devised for Republican candidates to use as a campaign platform.

The speaker-to-be has already moved to implement the congressional reforms he promised to take up on Jan. 4, the first day of the new session.

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