Tweedledee and Tweedledum in the House

TWEEDLEDEE and Tweedledum were rival fiddlers whose fans clashed, although the difference in their music was negligible. Americans early applied the nicknames to the Democratic and Republican parties. That's how we've thought of the parties - large, sprawling, not much different from one another, fighting for the middle of the road. No wonder Americans were surprised this spring to see what ex-Speaker Jim Wright called ``the mindless cannibalism'' of Democrats and Republicans fighting over ethics charges. But, given recent history, they should not have been. Nor should they be fooled by what President Bush has called ``the new bipartisanship.''

The Republicans have been the minority party in the House of Representatives for 50 years, with only two brief breaks, 1946-48 and 1952-54. Periodically, during this time, frustrated Republicans have rebelled. Newt Gingrich - himself the target of an ethics probe - is only the latest example.

Despite Dwight Eisenhower's popularity, House Republicans suffered a crushing defeat in '58. In response, they engineered a party coup, replacing longtime minority leader Joe Martin with Charles Halleck. Mr. Martin, an old friend of Speaker Sam Rayburn, was too apt to negotiate amendments with ``Mr. Sam.'' Feisty Mr. Halleck would fight the Democrats.

But Halleck and his successors, including Jerry Ford, did no better than Martin at turning the Republicans into a majority party. In 1980, they saw a Republican president and Senate elected, while they still languished as the House minority party. The stage was set for a roughrider.

The man who rode in, Newt Gingrich, is enigmatic. A professor of European history, he deftly uses the electronic TV politics to his advantage. When first elected, Mr. Gingrich organized other young Republicans into the Conservative Opportunity Society. He then redesigned Republican strategy, proposing bold conservative ideas rather than amending Democratic ones. He attacked the Democratic leadership.

The growth of ideological politics in the United States fanned the flames of partisan feuding. In the early 1970s, a flood of young Democrats who had cut their political teeth on the civil rights, the antiwar, and the women's movements came to the House. A few years later, they were matched by bright, young conservative Republicans, eager to dismantle the New Deal, build an aggressive defense against communism, and fight abortion and other perceived threats to American values.

The two groups were opposites and neither followed a ``go along to get along'' philosophy. They went for the jugular.

Guy Vander Jagt, a Republican campaign chair, targeted House Democrats in the 1980 elections. He even tried to get a Boston Republican named O'Neill to run against Tip O'Neill. Tip was outraged, declaring, ``It's an unwritten principle of Congress ... we [party leaders] don't challenge each other.'' Mr. Vander Jagt coolly replied that the rules had changed.

House Democrats responded with partisan tactics of their own. Mr. O'Neill stacked important House committees. He ordered TV cameras to pan the House, showing that Gingrich and his allies were speaking before empty seats. In '85, Democrats voted not to seat an Indiana Republican who had won a contested election by 34 votes.

A later recount by a Democratically-controlled committee awarded the seat to the Democrat. Republican leader Robert Michel warned that the majority party had ``poisoned the wells of civility in the House. Things will never be the same.''

Partisanship has also changed informal traditions of courtesy among members. A Congress constantly debating controversial issues, the thinking went, needs the soothing oil of civility to mitigate conflict. But young ideologues were impatient with what they saw as artificial courtesies. They were in Congress on a holy mission to push radical agendas. This led to filibusters so heated the Senate chaplain once prayed: ``Father in Heaven, the senators are very weary in body and in mind. In such circumstances, heat tends to transcend light.''

Filibusters aren't permitted in the House, but Gingrich staged a made-for-TV speech that had the same effect. In May '84, he read a ``Dear Commandante'' letter sent by 10 House Democrats to Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra. O'Neill, infuriated by the attempt to question the Democrats' patriotism on TV, stood on the House floor and called Gingrich's action ``the lowest thing I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.'' He was ruled out of order for discourtesy.

O'Neill himself was the victim of a nasty remark. In 1981, brash young Republican John LeBoutillier described O'Neill as ``big, fat, and out of control - just like the federal budget.'' O'Neill made sure his opponent's campaign was well-funded, and Mr. LeBoutillier was defeated in '82.

Speakers Tom Foley and Robert Michel have lessened partisan fighting. In fact, the bipartisan resolution on support for the contras, the deficit, and the S&L bailout has appeared downright chummy. But Mr. Foley and Mr. Michel will have a hard time sustaining these breezy images. Just now Democrats are seeking Gingrich's hide as revenge for Mr. Wright. Yes, Tweedledee and Tweedledum may soon be at it again.

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