GOP endures setbacks as House takes recess

Budget legislation fails to pass as Congress breaks for Memorial Day

May 29, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Speaker Dennis Hastert won the allegiance of his fellow Republicans with a pledge to restore order to the fractured House. But the Republican Congress collapsed in disarray this week, abruptly leaving hours early for a holiday recess, without being able to act on military legislation and failing to pass several budget bills that Hastert had counted on finishing by Memorial Day.

These setbacks raise serious questions about the ability of Republican leaders to govern a House with one of the slimmest majorities this century, when any five defections can throw the majority party off course. The last time control of Congress was so tight was during the Republican-led Congress of 1955. After that, Democrats won control and held on for 40 years.

Every day this week brought a new defeat.

A handful of Republicans defied Hastert to work with Democrats on campaign finance legislation. Conservatives brought the House to a grinding halt by offering endless amendments to an agriculture bill.

Republican leaders pulled back legislation to pay for congressional offices, for fear the Democrats would try to tack on gun control proposals. And a bill authorizing Pentagon programs collapsed because both Democrats and Republican conservatives were prepared to vote to block it from the floor.

The week before, Senate Republicans had been driven into retreat by Democrats over gun control.

"We had a better week than the Senate did because they screwed up so badly that everybody noticed it," said New York Republican Rep. Peter T. King. "We did so little that nobody realized we were doing nothing." He added, "But we can't survive many more weeks like this."

Despite a facade of unity after their 1998 election losses, House Republicans have only papered over their differences. The House Republican caucus is still composed of distinct factions: hard-right conservatives, traditional conservatives and northeastern moderates. At any moment, they pull in different directions.

Even the House leadership is splintered. Dick Armey, the House majority leader, and Tom DeLay, the House majority whip, voted at times with the rebellious conservatives on the agriculture amendments.

In one party caucus this week, Republicans say, Tom Latham of Iowa talked of the dissidents who were defying the Republican conference by undermining the agriculture bill. He then pointed to the front of the room and said it was the party leaders who were voting against the bills. He asked how they could tell others to stand together if they did not have the courage to do so.

That, Republicans say, brought a defensive speech from Armey, who the next day stopped voting with the conservative dissidents.

Making matters worse for the Republicans is that Democrats, seeing the possibility of retaking the House next year, are seizing any opportunity to promote their agenda.

"If the Republicans continue to do nothing, we are not going to sit back and do nothing," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat. "Whether it's campaign reform or the patients' bill of rights, we are going to make sure that the issues are joined and they are going to have to decide which side they're on." Even if their efforts never make it into law, Democrats believe they are showcasing themselves as the advocates of an agenda that will resonate with voters next year.

From the start this year, House Republicans knew they would have trouble governing because of the size of their majority. "We only have a margin of five votes," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who broke with his party this week on campaign finance. "We all know it's making it difficult to run the place."

Their solution was to opt for a minimalist agenda and a low-visibility leader and to put a high priority on passing the year's spending bills in an orderly fashion. They would then bank on a presidential candidate to provide an agenda and a face for the party next year to rally voters.

"Whether anybody wants to admit to it or not around here, George W. is going to be the Republican Party leader across the next 18 months or so," Rep. Joe Scarborough, a Florida Republican, said recently, referring to Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

Democrats argue that the Republicans are repeating the mistake they made last year when, instead of putting forward an agenda, they relied on the scandals surrounding President Clinton to carry them forward. And they say that no matter which party wins, a presidential candidate has congressional coattails only in the case of a landslide. "It's a risky strategy to rely on a landslide in the presidential election to protect them," said Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, a member of the Democratic leadership.

Now the orderly passage of spending bills seems in jeopardy. The Republican leaders gave their members a week's vacation for Memorial Day because they had expected two or three of the 13 spending bills to be passed this week. None were.

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