WASHINGTON — ROOM H227 is an oasis of relative calm on Capitol Hill - a quiet, unprepossessing refuge of House Republican leaders in the august Capitol building. It is far removed from the chaos and partisan stridency that until a month ago had dominated this year's atmosphere in the House of Representatives, but which appears to be receding. Senate Republican leader Robert Michel, not a hair out of place, sits at a table in H227 and talks quietly of atmosphere and legislative pace in the House.
``I sense a better mood around here'' in the month since Thomas Foley replaced Jim Wright in the top Democratic position as Speaker, the man from Peoria says calmly. ``And I am very comfortable with it.'' The House's legislative pace has similarly improved, he says.
When former House Democratic leaders Jim Wright and Tony Coelho announced their resignations more than a month ago, Washington observers wondered whether the House would dissolve into a temporary frenzy of tit-for-tat partisan attack, or settle back into a period of renewed legislative activity and relatively better feeling. At least tentatively, it appears to be choosing the latter course, as Mr. Michel indicates.
Joseph Martin Jr. would have been glad to hear that. As Michel discusses the way the House is functioning, Mr. Martin's portrait watches placidly from a wall above; Martin is one of four past Republican leaders so honored. The House of Representatives and its smooth functioning meant much to this man who from 1953 to 1955 was Speaker of the House - the last time the Republican Party held a majority.
Now House Republicans are in their 35th consecutive year as a minority. Congressional observers automatically point to this persistent minority status as a reason for the frustration some Republicans feel, contributing to fractiousness within the House.
For several years House Republicans have pointed to something else: the Democratic leadership. Despite denials by former Speaker Jim Wright and others, House Republicans had insisted that they were not getting a fair shake under Mr. Wright, neither procedurally nor substantively.
This has now changed, Michel says. The new mood stems from Speaker Foley's first ruling as chairman, Michel adds, in which Foley ruled in favor of the Republican position on an inconsequential voice vote because Republicans had spoken up more loudly. Suddenly, Republicans realized they were going to be treated more equitably on procedural matters, he says.
And on substantive ones, too. Michel praises ``the manner in which the foreign-aid bill was considered, and the opportunity for discussion and amendment'' that Speaker Foley accorded to Republican proposals.
A few minutes before Michel made his observations, the House Democratic leadership had made clear its desire to return from the legislative chaos that had characterized the early months of this year in the House to the crisp pace of the last two years.
It is time to return to that appropriations pace, new House majority leader Richard Gephardt told his colleagues just before the House adjourned for the July 4 recess.
This return to a more constructive atmosphere and pace in the House could all come apart, especially if future ethics investigations are used for partisan purposes by either party. House minority whip Newt Gingrich, a likely target of a House ethics probe because of an unusual book publishing arrangement, conceded to reporters two months ago that he felt a little ``fear'' that he would be targeted for partisan political purposes.