WASHINGTON -- A political wish list -- drafted by candidates, polished by consultants and tested on focus groups -- is the bible that Republican House leaders are determined to follow, chapter and verse, in their frantic first 100 days in office.
The Republicans say they will translate their "Contract with America," which was essentially a political document designed to give the congressional elections a national theme, into the framework for a new government.
There is no guarantee that this grab bag of proposals with feel-good names like "The American Dream Restoration Act" will become law. The more than 300 House candidates who signed the "contract" in September promised only that its package of tax cuts, conservative reforms and anti-government measures would come up for a speedy vote. Many who signed the contract don't even support all the items.
With a wide-open amendment process, few of the items are likely to pass the House as written, GOP leaders say. More changes are all but certain in the Senate, where Republicans have not signed on to the contract.
"The most important thing is there will be an open, lively debate and full participation by members of Congress, whether they be minority or majority, and the public will get its money's worth in terms of airing out these issues," said Rep. Dick Armey, the Texas Republican who will become the new House majority leader.
The core elements of tax and spending cuts, and a shifting of priorities from social programs to defense and prison construction, will be incorporated into a Republican economic package. That package will embody GOP ideals, much as the Clinton economic package of last year represented his view of a more activist government.
"Our goal at the end of these two years is to have Americans shaking their heads and saying: 'You know what? The Republicans really do understand what we want in this country,' " said Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, who will be a leader in that effort as the new chairman of the Budget Committee.
It's not at all clear that the Republican landslide, which gave the party control of Congress for the first time in four decades, was a referendum on the "Contract with America." Pre-election polls indicated that only one-third of voters had heard of the document. A post-election survey by CNN found that 60 percent respondents considered the election a repudiation of Democratic policies. Only 18 percent called it a mandate for the Republican approach.
Even so, the Republican leaders argue that the contract includes many items that routinely strike a chord with voters: a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, congressional terms limits, tougher penalties for criminals, a dramatic scaling back of the welfare system and curbs on civil litigation.
When combined with a series of tax cuts for businesses, wealthy Americans and the middle class, Mr. Armey contends, the contract would lead to a long-standing Republican goal: "a smaller government financed by lower taxes that engages the American people with greater respect and greater freedom to conduct their own affairs."
In fact, the contract was designed to be as broadly appealing as possible. It was developed by Republican candidates who drew on ideas that played well on the campaign stump. The descriptive language was crafted by Frank Luntz, a consultant who tested his words on groups of voters to weed out any clunkers.
A public reading of the contract will open each day's House session, Speaker-designate Newt Gingrich of Georgia said yesterday, and all House members will be given laminated copies.
Many Democrats have complained that the list is little more than a politically seductive gimmick that would be impossible to deliver on without a lot of pain.
"As I read it, I could support about 80 percent of those things," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "If they're going to bring up things like a $500-per-child tax credit, they're going to get a lot of free votes. The problem is, the contract has no specifics on how they're going to pay for it. Unless they do that, it's just a gimmick or worse."
The contract call for $193 billion worth of tax cuts over the next five years, which would be offset by $45 billion in spending cuts in welfare, nutrition and crime-prevention programs. That would leave a $148 billion gap, which would have to be made up with spending cuts to keep the annual budget deficit at its current level of about $200 billion. But Republicans also plan to cut spending enough to reduce the deficit within five to seven years.
That would mean a total of $600 billion in spending cuts over the next five years, according to Rick May, staff director of the Budget Committee under Mr. Kasich.
How the Republicans will achieve that remains a mystery. Tax increases of any sort have been ruled out, and the Social Security program has been declared off-limits.
"It's going to mean five to seven years of tough choices," Mr. Gingrich said.