Rifts bedevil House GOP

Legislative agenda imperiled by divisions on philosophy, tactics

`This is Newt's legacy'

June 07, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The political reckoning for the House Republicans' two-fisted, confrontational style appears about to come due, and it could cost them control of Congress.

Trying to govern with a membership that is deeply divided on both tactics and philosophy, GOP leaders will be scrambling this week to deal not only with Democratic obstruction, but with rebellion in their own ranks.

At some point, the GOP will be forced to seek help -- at least on critical spending issues -- from the Democratic president it impeached. But neither he nor the Democratic congressional leaders are in a hurry to step in.

They are keenly aware that the Republicans won't risk a repeat of the titanic budget showdown in 1995 when President Clinton vetoed their spending bills, forcing parts of the government to close temporarily. The GOP was blamed for that shutdown, and it cost the party seats the following year while giving a boost to the president's re-election effort.

Now, with the slimmest House majority in nearly a half century, Republican leaders can't afford another debacle that could pave the way for a Democratic takeover in 2001.

Yet, the GOP so far has refused to admit publicly that it can't meet its own goals for beefed-up defense spending and tax cuts while also remaining true to its self-imposed spending limits and its commitment to protect the Social Security surplus.

"The Republicans have voluntarily put themselves in a spot that is almost impossible to get out of with any grace," observed Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat active in his party's drive to end GOP rule of the House. "Why should we let them extricate themselves with respect from their own folly?"

This could be Clinton's summer of sweet revenge. The president is already tweaking the GOP about its "blueprint for chaos."

That prospect must be all the more delicious for Clinton when he considers that the Republican who is maneuvering most frantically to keep chaos from descending on his fractious troops is Majority Whip Tom DeLay, the president's chief nemesis on Capitol Hill.

For his part, DeLay is convinced there is no chance of a good or fair bargain with Clinton, only some hope of avoiding a total nightmare at the end of the year.

"Long before impeachment, Clinton proved to us that he can't be trusted," said Tony Rudy, a top aide to the GOP whip. "We know he's going to hold us up for as much as he can. We're just trying to minimize the damage."

DeLay has learned that the galling reality of dealing with Clinton is that whenever there's a fiasco in Washington -- no matter whose fault it is -- Republicans take the heat.

"This is Newt's legacy," said Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation, referring to former speaker Newt Gingrich. "Congress was never considered to be in charge until Newt and the Republicans took over in 1995 and proclaimed they were running things."

In each of the two succeeding congressional elections during this turbulent period, the Republicans have lost ground. Their House majority has been whittled from a high of 236 seats in late 1995 to 223 today. Democrats have rebounded to 211 from their low point of 197 in 1995, when one of the 435 House seats was vacant. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the lone independent, almost always votes with the Democrats.

Gingrich, once a firebrand back-bencher who fomented what came to be called the Republican Revolution, left another legacy: a House majority replete with political newcomers and independent thinkers for whom principle means more than party cohesion -- or even re-election.

"A lot of them did not serve in state legislatures and don't understand the importance of compromise," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who arrived in Washington in 1995 with the more traditional background of service in the Maryland General Assembly.

While many of the Republican newcomers ultimately became attuned to the horse-trading ways of Washington, a faction large enough to cause trouble refused to relent.

Among their leaders is Rep. Tom Coburn, a 51-year-old obstetrician from Oklahoma, who is not seeking re-election next year because he limited himself to three terms when he won his seat in 1994.

Coburn waged a rare but successful House filibuster two weeks ago to block approval of a popular farm spending bill that would have tapped into surplus Social Security funds at the same time Republicans are promising to leave that surplus intact. He denounced the tactic as "intellectually dishonest."

Gingrich referred to Coburn and like-minded colleagues on the House floor in October as the "Perfectionist Caucus: each in their own world where they are petty dictators and could write a perfect bill. But that is not the way life works in a free society. We have to have give and take. We have to be able to work."

Within less than a month, the Perfectionists -- who had earlier launched an abortive coup against their speaker -- used GOP losses in the November elections as an excuse to force Gingrich out.

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