Republican leaders move to slow Democrats' momentum in House

`Either hang together, or separately,' speaker warns fractious GOP

June 09, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Desperately trying to restore order to the House, Republican leaders moved yesterday to slow the momentum of a Democratic gun-control drive and to paper over a spending dispute that has prompted rebellion in their own ranks.

Speaker Dennis Hastert and his lieutenants announced the moves after a meeting in which Hastert warned his fractious Republican troops, who hold a narrow majority in the House, that they have no choice but to stand together. At stake, Hastert said, are not only their legislative goals but also their control of Congress if voters come to believe that the Republicans are unable to govern.

"Whether you call it politically, whether you call it the fiscal future of this country or whether you call it the moral future of this country, we're at the crossroads," Hastert said. "We do either hang together, or hang separately."

But by day's end, it appeared that the Republicans only managed to buy themselves some time before ideological divisions and fiscal constraints trigger another conflict.

"They got a temporary reprieve," said Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The hard work is still ahead."

Congress returned to duty after a Memorial Day recess that House members began early because they had fought themselves to a standstill, blocking action even on the spending bills that must be passed to pay for government operations next year.

Among their first orders of business, Republican leaders used some of their majority muscle to cut their losses on the gun-control issue that enveloped the Capitol after the high school shootings in Colorado and Georgia.

They canceled plans to hold a voting session on gun-control issues this week in the sharply divided and high-decibel Judiciary Committee -- the same committee that voted last fall to recommend President Clinton's impeachment.

GOP strategists said they feared that many House Republicans would be hurt by the spectacle of a political free-for-all in the committee, a display that would then be repeated on the House floor. On gun control, regional distinctions often mean more than party labels, making it difficult to impose party discipline.

Instead, a juvenile crime bill with gun-control proposals similar to, but weaker than, those passed by the Senate will be sent directly to the full House next week.

Leaders believe that a high-profile debate on the House floor will allow Republicans to assert that they responded to voter concerns about the proliferation of guns. Yet, the leaders will be able to manage the specific proposals to be voted on.

"We are responding to requests by members of both parties to address these issues on the floor," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

But Democrats charged that this explanation was a ruse. The Democrats had pressed Republican leaders to take up the Senate-passed gun control provisions before the Memorial Day break but were told that the House Judiciary Committee needed time to hold hearings on the legislation and to consider its own recommendations.

"It's clear this was just an excuse to give the National Rifle Association more time to lobby against the bill," said Richard A. Gephardt, the House Democratic leader.

Rather than Republicans reasserting control, Gephardt said, "this is the NRA taking control."

In fact, the NRA says, it has been lobbying furiously in the intervening weeks, buying newspaper ads, running phone banks and writing letters to its members, urging them to "put pressure on Congress like you never have before."

The Senate bill includes several contentious provisions, including a requirement that background checks be conducted of buyers at gun shows. Currently, only licensed gun dealers are required to perform such checks.

The bill also would require that child safety locks be sold with handguns, bar juveniles from owning assault weapons and deny the right of gun ownership to anyone convicted of a crime as a youth.

While provisions of the bill are fluid, aides say that the House version will eliminate some of the Senate language that the NRA resisted and will shorten the time allowed for background checks at gun shows to three calendar days, from three business days.

Progress on the spending bills resumed after Hastert assured members that he was determined to adhere to the spending limits imposed by the 1997 balanced budget act, in order to make good on the party's pledge to protect the surplus in Social Security revenue.

Rep. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, dropped his filibuster of a farm spending bill after a $102 million cut brought the measure closer to the amount set aside for it, but the bill is still $153 million over the limit.

Pub Date: 6/09/99

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