WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- In what they billed as the start of a historic political change, the new Republican leaders of Congress pledged yesterday to work closely with state and local officials in an effort to shift power out of Washington and closer to the people.
Making their first public appearance together since the election two weeks ago, House Republican leader Newt Gingrich and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole said party unity was the key to achieving the dramatic reforms their party is proposing.
"We're going to be a team," Mr. Gingrich told the gathering of Republican governors. He said House and Senate Republicans were already taking steps at the staff level to coordinate activities and minimize friction.
Mr. Dole and Mr. Gingrich have clashed in the past, and there have been predictions that intraparty squabbling would ultimately prevent Republicans from meeting their ambitious goals of cutting taxes and spending, balancing the budget and reducing the reach of the federal bureaucracy.
In his speech to the governors, Mr. Dole acknowledged that Republicans are "not going to agree on every issue." But he said that if GOP lawmakers in Washington consult with elected officials of both parties at the local and state level, "we can make a difference."
Mr. Dole, a likely contender for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, added that "if we blow it, we may be denied the opportunity for another 10, 15, 20 years. But we're not going to blow it."
During three days of post-election discussions here, GOP governors hammered away at the states' rights theme, demanding an end to what they regard as an unfair burden of expensive federal regulations.
Typical was a remark by Gov. Pete Wilson of California, where voters this month passed an initiative that challenges federal court rulings ordering the state to provide social welfare benefits to illegal immigrants.
"California is a proud, sovereign state, dammit. We are not colonies of the federal government," Mr. Wilson told the congressional leaders, including the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees and of the Senate Finance Committee, as well as Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Dole.
The GOP governors and lawmakers share the view that voters in this month's election sent a message seeking lower taxes and a smaller, less intrusive government.
Mr. Gingrich predicted that historians would look back at the Williamsburg conference as "the meeting that crystallized the process of getting power out of Washington and in a sense reversing the centralization which began in 1932 . . . ."
"I think you will see coming out of this a dramatic effort to decentralize government and return it to the people all across the United States," said the Georgia congressman, who is in line to become the first Republican House speaker in 40 years.
The scope of the challenge Republicans face -- taking a much larger role in governing the country -- is only beginning to sink in, said participants at the three-day GOP conference. Mr. Dole alluded to that realization in his address to the governors. Turning to his House counterpart, the Kansas Republican remarked, "I understand it's never going to be any better than it is right now, Newt, because we don't have the responsibility yet."
Congressional Republicans have pledged to balance the federal budget in seven years, a goal that will require hundreds of billions in spending cuts. That has led many governors of both parties to worry that the states will get stuck with the bill.
Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich noted that during the 1980s, the last time the states mounted a serious effort to shift power from Washington, "we got the rug pulled out from under us" by Republican President Ronald Reagan.
"The issue is: Are we going to do it?" Mr. Voinovich asked. "I know some of you don't want to hear this, but we are going to have to work with county commissioners, state legislators, mayors and Democratic governors. . . . It's got to be a bipartisan effort."
Mr. Voinovich and other governors warn that a GOP-sponsored balanced-budget amendment won't gain ratification from the states without a companion effort to outlaw "unfunded federal mandates" -- laws and regulations that require state and local government action in social welfare, environmental protection and other areas, without enough federal money to pay for it.
In a symbolic move, Mr. Dole announced that he was assigning the title of "Senate Bill One" to a measure by Idaho Sen. Dirk Kempthorne that would require a congressional vote on any federal regulation costing $50 million or more that does not include enough federal money for the states to carry it out.