After 10 Years, Democrats Head Congress on the Offensive

Dispirited House Republicans now fewer and in disarray

WHAT a difference a decade makes for Congress and the White House. Flushed with victories 10 years ago, led by that new Washington face, Ronald Reagan, Republicans in Congress and the White House were the legislative protagonists, with Democrats on the defensive.

Next January it will be the other way around - with congressional Democrats charging and Republicans backpedaling.

Congress is also different in another way. It has emerged from the 1980s ``terrifically battered and bruised'' on ethics, says Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute - from the late-'80s problems of former Speaker Jim Wright to the current ones of at least three senators in connection with Charles Keating, a key figure in the savings-and-loan scandal.

In one respect the congressional agenda remains the same: The enormous federal budget deficit that dominated the '80s remains the major domestic problem for the early '90s.

When 1981 dawned, Congress faced the newly minted Reagan Revolution, with its plan of slowing government growth and rolling back taxes. The GOP had a majority in the Senate, and operational control in the House through a linkup with conservative Democrats.

In the early '80s when Congress tried to go in a direction other than one supported by Mr. Reagan ``it got rolled,'' Dr. Ornstein says. But by the end of the decade the president was ``more on the defensive,'' Ornstein notes, and the Congress, now controlled by Democrats, ``more on the offensive.''

Enter 1991. When Congress reconvenes Jan. 3, Democrats on Capitol Hill will be on the offensive. They control both houses of Congress, adding small gains this election. Further, they are increasingly assertive, feeling they gained popular strength this fall by seizing on the issue of fairness in taxation.

House Republicans are not only few in number but dispirited and in disarray. A majority of them twice broke openly with the White House last month over how to reduce the budget deficit.

President Bush will be the last line of defense against Democratic programs, and the veto his most effective weapon.

The likely outcome? An increasingly partisan stalemate: Democrats rarely able to best the president, while Mr. Bush and congressional Republicans infrequently subdue Democrats.

That stalemate will make it difficult for lawmakers to pass bills. But something else may make bill-passing more difficult - proposals to limit the strength and thus the effectiveness of congressional leadership. ``You are probably going to see any number of measures to further limit the power and influence of leadership in Congress,'' says David Mason, a political scientist at the Heritage Foundation.

Moves to set limits on members of Congress are a continuation of the past 15 years of fragmentation of power there, Dr. Mason says. Until now, the effort, which was successful, was to limit the power of committee chairman. During the '90s, attention will focus on congressional leaders, he adds. Republicans have already considered limiting the number of years a senator can be a Senate leader.

These efforts are all part of ``a wave of reform'' that Mason expects will hit Congress this decade. Part of this reform, he says, would include reducing the use of free-mail privileges for congressional members, which provides incumbents with enormous advantage over challengers. Another measure would be a continued limitation on the size of a member's staff.

Net effect of these reforms: ``Congress won't be more efficient, and may be less so,'' Mason forecasts.

No one foresees a return to the early '80s when Republicans combined with conservative Democrats - so-called ``Boll Weevils'' - to control the House. ``If the Democratic advantage is more than 50, it can't be done'' for numerical reasons, Ornstein says. The advantage now is nearly 100.

Republicans new have fewer than 170 members and would need 190 to attract the votes of the 20 to 30 conservative Democrats to produce a majority in the 435-seat House. These Boll Weevils won't risk alienating Democratic Party leaders by voting with Republicans unless realistic prospect of success exists.

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