Sniping and gloating, Congress heads home Critics say '98 session was marred by feuds, myriad investigations

October 22, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The 105th Congress finally closed shop and limped out of town yesterday, with Republicans sniping at their leaders, outside conservative groups raging at the GOP, and Democrats proclaiming a reversal of fortune even as their candidates struggle in the polls.

Senate approval of a $500 billion budget bill -- which was quickly signed into law by President Clinton -- ended a Congress that helped to balance the federal budget, cut taxes, reform the Internal Revenue Service and increase defense spending above inflation for the first time since 1985.

But its landmark achievements came mostly in 1997. Critics say this year has been marred by false starts, partisan feuds, myriad investigations and an unpopular presidential impeachment inquiry, which appears to have lost momentum as lawmakers turned their attention to the budget and the congressional elections less than two weeks away.

The 11th-hour budget deal hasn't helped much, either, because fiscal conservatives believe GOP leaders gave too much new spending to Clinton for fear that he might veto the measure and blame them for shutting down the government.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich defended the final spending compromise yesterday as "liberal money and conservative policies." Shortly before the House voted on the measure Tuesday night, Gingrich derided critics as "the perfectionist caucus."

He said that lawmakers "who have grown up and matured in this process understand we have to work together on big issues."

But even some Republicans are joining a chorus of Democrats who for weeks have blasted a "do-nothing Congress." Asked if this had been a bad Congress, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain snapped, "The worst I've seen in 16 years."

Beyond the Beltway

Yet for all the Republican hand-wringing and Democratic gloating over budget triumphs, the action in Washington seems to be having little effect beyond the Beltway.

A study released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found Republicans still hold a lead of 48 percent to 44 percent among likely voters in the most competitive congressional districts. That edge has been virtually unchanged since June.

The Nov. 3 election will likely be decided on state and local issues, not national themes, the Pew study found. Indeed, if Washington has any impact nationally, it could come from the Republican Party's fund-raising prowess, which is helping local GOP candidates swamp their Democratic challengers in a flood of attack advertisements.

The GOP's problems "are overstated," said Florida Republican Sen. Connie Mack. "I can't think of one person who has come up to me with a sense that they were disgusted with us."

From Capitol Hill's vantage point, the last-minute budget deal seems to have turned Washington upside-down. Yesterday's lopsided 65-29 Senate vote belied the widely held disdain directed at a 2-foot-tall, 40-pound bill dubbed "an elephantine monstrosity" by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the lead Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, and "a betrayal of our responsibility to spend the taxpayers' dollars wisely" by McCain.

Such charges came from all over the political spectrum, but they were particularly vociferous from conservatives, whose vote might be critical for Republicans in a mid-term election with traditionally scant voter turnout. James Dobson, whose conservative Focus on the Family has hundred of thousands of followers, issued a statement yesterday blasting Republican leaders who "have again abandoned their pro-family and pro-moral base without which they could not have achieved power."

"In a shameful loss of nerve, Republican leaders rolled over like whipped puppies and begged, 'Don't hit me again,' " Dobson said of last week's budget negotiations. "As in the past, ordinary families again came up empty."

Demoralized

Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, was sympathetic, expressing concern that conservative voters may be so demoralized by the budget deal that they will simply stay home Nov. 3.

"A lot of Republicans who believed in less government, more personal responsibility, worked hard to put Republicans in power four years ago," said Hagel, who denounced the budget deal on the Senate floor. "If they see nothing changing in four years, that will affect turnout. That will affect enthusiasm."

And he issued his own veiled threat to the GOP leadership in the House and Senate: "This is not a kingdom. Leaders serve at the pleasure of their caucus, and they can be removed."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott did not enter the debate on the floor and declined to make himself available to reporters. His chief deputy, Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, was among 20 Republicans who voted against the budget bill.

Other disappointments

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