With newfound power, GOP feels growing pains

November 28, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- They've bested the White House and overthrown the Democratic leadership in Congress.

Now Republican leaders are working to ensure that the remarkable unity and singleness of purpose that kept them together as an embittered, sometimes oppressed, minority won't give way to disputes with each other over how to use their new power.

There have been a few early danger signs. Republican senators are second-guessing GOP House members; the party's fiscal conservatives are quibbling with its social conservatives; some committee chairmen are free-lancing; and the outspoken Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina has embarrassed many of his colleagues with inflammatory comments about President Clinton and foreign aid.

"It's inevitable: the majority party is always going to be more fractured and less disciplined than the minority," said David King, a public policy analyst at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "But I think the Republicans are going to work together far better than most people suspect."

Much of the early friction is attributed by Republican analysts to jockeying for position as the new lines of influence are drawn.

"Everyone wants to be president," Robert Lighthizer, a former Republican staff director for the Senate Finance Committee, said of the Republicans. "Even the freshmen. They'll start off as privates, but by June they'll all be generals. I think that's the dynamic that will mold this entire process."

Unlike the Democrats, who two years ago also faced a new session of Congress with bright hopes and a post-election adrenalin rush, the Republicans don't have a party leader in the White House to set the tone and agenda. They also have much smaller majorities to work with, particularly in the House, where their controlling margin is 230-203. This term, the Democrats struggled even when they were 80 votes ahead in the House.

Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who as speaker of the House will be the top-ranking GOP official in Washington, has moved quickly to establish himself as chief spokesman for his party. His "Contract with America" has given the Republicans a written set of goals and priorities to organize around.

But Mr. Gingrich has already had to backpedal a couple of times after adverse reactions from his colleagues -- including the new Republican governors -- most recently on his plan for an early vote on the controversial issue of school prayer.

"There is a consensus here that we've got to move on the economic issues first," said Sen. Connie Mack of Florida, one of two dozen Senate Republicans who met last week to discuss the legislative agenda.

Many Republican lawmakers say they believe the plan to cut spending and balance the federal budget will be hard enough to accomplish without the added distraction of potentially divisive social issues.

But they are also being pressured by conservative groups who want the new majority to act quickly not only on restoring school prayer, but to further restrict abortions, discourage gay rights and lift gun bans.

This conflict in priorities between economic and social issues may be among the most troublesome for the GOP, Democrats contend.

"We're optimistic that we will be able to prevail against what is obviously a badly splintered Republican majority," said Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who hopes to become his party's new minority leader. "It's going to be very hard for them to ignore that pent-up demand from the right wing for action on social issues."

Republicans in the Senate, where three of their number are already gearing up to run for the White House in 1996, are finding it particularly difficult to present a common front. Their positions are colored by the competition between Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the likely Senate majority leader, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who holds no leadership title but nonetheless seems to wield as much clout as Mr. Dole within the body.

For example, the new world trade agreement known as GATT was effectively held hostage until last week, when Mr. Dole negotiated a deal with Mr. Clinton that will allow him to back the treaty and Mr. Gramm quickly signed on. Though both are free-traders, they were worried about conservative opposition to the trade agreement.

The Dole-Gramm battle is expected to be fought by proxies this week, when their respective favorites duel over the No. 2 job of assistant majority leader. Mr. Gramm is backing Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi against the current assistant, Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, a close associate of Mr. Dole who has come to represent the less confrontational old-school Republicans, while Mr. Lott is the candidate of the more aggressive younger members, many of whom served with him in the House.

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