All Eyes on Congress

January 23, 1995

One fortnight into the Republican revolution on Capitol Hill finds Congress throbbing with passion and activity on a scale not seen since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society era. Before the First Hundred Days are completed on April 15, House GOP leaders might well have passed all or major parts of their election-winning "Contract with America."

Already they have secured enactment of sweeping changes in House rules and, with Senate assent, have sent to President Clinton major legislation that brings Congress under labor, safety, anti-discrimination and health laws that have long applied to the rest of the country. But the defining issue of the Contract -- the proposed Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution -- is laced with controversy and conundrums that put the eventual fate of the revolution in doubt.

Though Speaker Newt Gingrich has made a surprising number of missteps, generating resentment even within his own well-disciplined ranks, his path has been made easier by incredible disarray among Democrats now cast into minority status. In the House, Democratic leader Dick Gephardt has caused outrage with tax proposals that have embarrassed the White House and caught his colleagues unaware. In the Senate, former Democratic leader Robert Byrd is turning time-tested GOP gridlock tactics against their former practitioners, thus delaying action on the Balanced Budget Amendment and on legislation to stop Congress from imposing mandates on the states without providing the funds to pay for their implementation.

The result has been the relegation of the Clinton administration to the sidelines. The president will try to regain control of the national agenda with his State of the Union Speech tomorrow night, but it will be a close thing. His budget, due in early February, is almost certain to be trumped by GOP proposals for more spending and tax cuts.

Given this situation, Republicans will dominate the Washington scene for many months to come. What is intriguing, however, is whether their undoubted momentum will carry over into the 1996 presidential election year if their initiatives inflict so much pain that voters rebel. Mr. Gingrich may be eager to avoid that trap. But for now, his party is being swept along by ideologues gingered up by conservative radio talk show hosts.

An example is the budget amendment, which would force $1.2 trillion in deficit cuts by 2002. In its Contract version, the amendment would require a three-fifths vote in Congress for any bill raising taxes. Because this provision would put almost all the budget-balancing burden on cuts in spending, a simple-majority provision on tax hikes is likely to prevail. Even then, ratification of the amendment by three fourths of the states will be difficult.

All this, however, is for the future. Right now even loyalist Democrats are impressed by the sense of purpose the new Republican majorities have created in Congress. They are trying to make history -- and may succeed.

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