Humbled House freshmen regroup GOP newcomers come to Baltimore to ponder wins, losses

January 26, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The feverishly energetic House Republican freshmen, who set out to prove they would be the first lawmakers in memory to deliver what they promised, arrived at a midterm retreat in Baltimore yesterday in a humbler mood.

By dint of their number, unity and refusal to compromise, the 73 newcomers altered the political landscape in Washington. They dictated the debate, forced Democrats as well as Republicans to move seriously toward erasing deficits and even got the Democratic president to pronounce their own mantra -- "The era of big government is over."

In addition, they helped ram nearly all the items in the Republicans' "Contract with America" through the House, stunningly, during the first 100 days of last year's session.

Nevertheless, their lasting legislative achievements so far are few, because the Senate and the president have often stood in the way. Their grandest goal -- a balanced budget by 2002 that would reverse decades of Democratic social policy and restrict the reach of government -- has been shelved for the year. Although the Republicans scored the remarkable feat of drafting and passing a balanced budget plan, its enactment was thwarted by a president whose own tenacity the freshmen may have underestimated.

"We felt like we were going to budge a president, in an election year, who really needed to show that he could stand for something," said Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, who called the budget negotiations a "fiasco."

"We shouldn't have expected him to vacillate like he usually does, and we took too hard a line."

Meanwhile, nearly all the items in the "Contract with America" lie moldering in the Senate. Only a few minor measures have been signed into law.

"We did everything we could do," said Rep. Joe Scarborough, another freshman Republican from Florida. "If some of us gave the impression that the House could change the world on its own, I guess we have some explaining to do. That was a little naive."

What's more, as the freshmen reassess their strategy for the coming year at an overnight conference at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, they can't be certain that voters will strengthen their hand this fall by electing a Republican president or even a larger Republican congressional majority that could overcome Senate filibusters.

After his State of the Union performance this week, President Clinton received strong reviews; the likely Republican nominee, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, gave what was perceived as a lackluster Republican response.

"Bill Clinton is as good as it gets on TV; Dole isn't," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County. "It's a concern."

Youth and charisma aside, Republicans believe that their party has the more appealing message: smaller, less costly and less intrusive government vs. what they call Mr. Clinton's support for the big-spending status quo.

jTC "It's up to us to get the message out," said Rep. Sue Myrick of North Carolina. "We've got to be able to communicate to people what it means for the future and what we're trying to do, which is not as draconian as the president tries to paint it."

At last night's opening dinner, the chief message to the freshmen from author and former Education Secretary William J. Bennett was not to lose heart -- especially when they are criticized for being too extreme.

"You haven't gone too far -- we've barely done anything yet. You've just started this thing," Mr. Bennett said. "They will talk about how harsh you are and how mean you are, and you've just got to hold your ground."

Despite their poor won-loss record, the Republicans' first year has not been a shutout. They have put in place some internal reforms that may mean more to their constituents than the budget debate.

Thanks to the freshmen efforts, Congress is now covered by the same personnel and safety laws that apply to the rest of America. The Republican-led Congress also voted to deny itself gifts, tightened requirements on lobbyists and cut its staff by one-third.

"We haven't got the big one, which is campaign financing reform, but we have kept some key promises," said Rep. Sam Brownback of Kansas.

Further, the House Republican freshmen have succeeded in throwing their weight around as no group before them has. As the largest, and most cohesive, voting bloc in the House, they have become the 800-pound gorilla of Washington politics.

"We've been able to get through the hump that [which] no other freshman class in our lifetime has been able to do," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray of California. "We have not been cowed, we have not been driven into a corner and held there, and basically told that our agenda had to wait until we are senior members."

House Democrats, who have been dragged through late nights as the Republicans raced to meet their ambitious schedule, delight in taunting the Republicans.

"You talk about a do-nothing Congress; I think we ought to send our pay back," Rep. Harold L. Volkmer, a Missouri Democrat, said this week.

Some critics contend that the freshmen record looks disappointing partly because they tried to do too much, too fast.

"They bamboozled themselves into thinking they had the people behind them on specific issues that had never been debated," said Kevin Phillips, a Republican political analyst. "Their 'Contract with America' was never really approved by the electorate, most of whom never heard of it."

The freshmen say, however, that while they are disappointed, they are not discouraged.

"It takes time to make generational changes; we can't do it in one year," said Rep. Sue W. Kelly of New York. "We came here to do a job, and we're still doing it."

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