House Republicans in political purgatory

In a few years, Trent Lott could be the top Republican in the United States House of Representatives. So here's his plan. Representative Lott is going to quit the House to run for the Senate. To be sure, Mr. Lott has good reason to abandon his post as the No. 2 member of the House Republican leadership, if only to be a low-ranking freshman in the Senate. As a senator, Lott points out, he can do more for his state than he can as a congressman, and his state - Mississippi - needs all the help it can get.

But a Senate race also offers Lott a chance to escape what some in Washington consider political purgatory. Trapped in the minority since 1955, House Republicans can only dream of what life is like as a committee chairman or even as a rank-and-file member of the party that sets the agenda. At the same time, they presently hold only 177 of the House's 435 seats. If House Republicans numbered, say, 200, says Lott, ``I wouldn't run. But they don't. That's not the scenario.''

The scenario is bitter confrontation with the Democrats. Lawmakers of both parties say relations between the Democratic leadership and House Republicans are the worst in memory, stiffening the partisan resolve of both sides and threatening to render consensus more elusive than ever.

``The arrogance of those Democrats can be pretty unbelievable,'' grumbles Rep. Lynn Martin (R) of Illinois. Counters House majority whip Tony Coelho (D) of California: ``The Republicans want chaos. In an atmosphere of chaos, they can thrive.''

Such hard feelings are nothing new, but they have intensified in recent years and peaked during the 100th Congress - the first overseen by House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas. Republicans still seethe over an event last October, when Speaker Wright held a budget bill vote open just long enough for a leadership aide to escort Rep. Jim Chapman, a fellow Texas Democrat, back into the chamber to switch his vote. Republicans, who opposed the bill, saw a rare minority victory slip from their grasp. The bill passed 206 to 205. ``Some people would call that dirty pool,'' said a flushed Rep. Bob Michel (R) of Illinois, the House minority leader.

Republican anger was compounded earlier this year, as the House went through an elaborate sequence of parliamentary contortions over the future of United States aid to the Nicaraguan contras. In February, Democrats successfully defeated President Reagan's request to extend military and nonmilitary aid to the contras - but not before promising House Republicans a vote on an aid package of their own, Mr. Michel says. When the time came for a vote, however, Wright had arranged a complex parliamentary procedure effectively ensuring a Democratic plan.

Republicans were so angry that they voted almost unanimously against the final bill, halting contra aid in the process. Both sides reached a compromise, and US-backed deliveries of basic supplies to the contras resumed. But the episode left sore feelings among Democrats and Republicans alike.

``Even when we can win, they won't let us win,'' says Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota. To Democrats, such complaints sound like sour grapes. ``We won't let them win?'' asks Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts. ``What do they think this is, professional wrestling?''

House Republicans believe the rules are stacked against them. And, in a way, they are. In the Senate, a determined minority can bring proceedings to a grinding halt. The House allows members no such leeway, and it is largely left to the leaders of a lopsided majority to determine what the House considers, when, and for how long.

With that kind of power comes the sort of political perks that leave Republicans gnashing their teeth. In 1981, for example, Democrats used their majority status to secure more slots on key committees.

Nowadays, say members of both parties, Wright regularly uses his powers as speaker to see that bills and voting procedures are custom-designed to benefit Democrats. ``Of course, we'd do the same thing,'' concedes one senior House Republican aide.

Yet some Republicans believe Democratic power is expressed in more insidious ways. The Congressional Budget Office, for example, has always prided itself on its rigorously nonpartisan analyses of economic issues. But a number of Republicans are questioning the Budget Office's independence after an incident last month when CBO officials deleted part of a report estimating the cost of Democrat-sponsored legislation to raise the minimum wage at the demand of Democratic committee aides. The deleted section concluded that the proposed increase in the minimum wage, from $3.35 to $5.05 over four years, would spur inflation and eliminate 500,000 jobs.

Adding insult to injury is the widespread notion that Republicans can do little about any of this. House Republicans have been the poor relations of the Reagan era: during the six years Republicans controlled the Senate, White House officials consulted sporadically with House Republicans, whose support was taken for granted. The coalition with Southern conservative Democrats that gave Republicans dramatic victories over Democratic leaders ``is gone for good,'' says Rep. Robert Walker (R) of Pennsylvania.

At the same time, few Republicans expect to become a part of the majority anytime soon.

The generation of Republicans who came to the House in the early '80s say it will be their task to forge a more cohesive - and vocal - minority. Already, Republicans have launched a bevy of task forces to develop House Republcan policies on such pressing matters as trade and long-term health care. Moreover, they are taking steps to ensure that they present a more united front to the Democrats - adopting, for example, a measure prohibiting Republicans who are ranking committee members from cooperating with Democrats in writing year-end, catch-all spending bills.

``We're not going to let ourselves become irrelevant,'' vows Rep. John Hiler (R) of Indiana, one of those swept into office with the Reagan revolution. ``I'm optimistic. When you're a House Republican, you have to be optimistic.''

Next Friday: Politics of the deficit.

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