Scrambled GOP image House Republicans: Their support of Dole shakier than Democratic backing for Clinton.

March 25, 1996

BESET BY ideological commitment and an instinct to be ornery, Republicans in the House are presenting a scrambled image to the country.

Consider their vote Friday to lift the popular 1994 ban on so-called assault weapons. This repeal will go nowhere this year. Its only political impact is to embarrass the party's standard-bearer, Bob Dole. No wonder two House Republicans called this tactic "ludicrous" and "stupid."

Yet foot-shooting is not the only activity of the GOP majority. They can do serious work. Consider their reform of New Deal farm legislation. This measure frees much of American agriculture from production limits and fluctuating federal subsidies that have fallen into disfavor. In the Senate, the measure was broadened to continue nutrition and environmental programs important to the nation's health and the preservation of its land. While initially opposed by House conservatives, conferees put together a sensible compromise that richly deserves President Clinton's approval.

This contrast between raw politics and responsible legislating, between indifference toward Mr. Dole and a realization they share a common cause, continues to profile the behavior of the House Republican majority.

Despite public concern as a result of the Oklahoma City bombing, Conservative Republicans have gutted an anti-terrorism bill once ticketed for quick passage. Yet they also seem to have accepted the reality that while the public wants a crackdown on illegal immigration, it wants to move slowly on legal immigration.

Agreement on a balanced budget bill seems out of reach. Yet both parties will probably settle for current-year spending levels that, to the credit of the GOP, are appreciably below what Democrats would have preferred. There could be acceptance of a presidential line-item veto that is needed and a lighter tax burden on Social Security benefits that is not. But hopes for welfare or health care reform are likely to be put off -- this, despite a narrowing of differences.

November's foes, President Clinton and Senator Dole, are destined to shift and parry as they try to balance their individual quest for partisan advantage with the knowledge that voters will judge them on their ability to handle Congress. Right now, Democrats are more unified behind Mr. Clinton than Republicans are behind Mr. Dole. A few more capers like the charade over assault weapons could leave the GOP leader wondering who his friends are.

Pub Date: 3/25/96

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