WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Clinton's task just got tougher on Capitol Hill.
A new generation of Republicans is lining up to replace House minority leader Robert Michel of Illinois, who has announced he will retire in January 1995 after 38 years in Congress.
Mr. Michel's gentlemanly, old-school leadership style will likely be replaced by younger, more aggressive Republicans ready to pounce on Mr. Clinton's programs with ideological fervor.
Michel was ``not one to throw much sand in the gears,'' says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution political analyst. ``He always knew in his heart of hearts that the Republicans would never be the majority party. So he would just work around the edges and get the best possible deal.''
However, Craig Shirley, a conservative Republican strategist, says Michel too often ``went along for the sake of bipartisanship, which I think is wrong.''
David Mason, a Heritage Foundation congressional expert, calls the departure ``a huge generational change. For Clinton, it's going to mean more aggressive opposition, certainly after 1994, and probably ... now.''
At the front of the line to replace Michel is the outspoken conservative minority whip, Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia. He scheduled an announcement for Oct. 7; colleagues expect him to seek the post. Rep. Gerald Solomon (R) of New York has said he would run. While not critical of Mr. Gingrich's partisanship, he said he was the best candidate to build a winning coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats. Other possible contenders are Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, head of the Republican Policy Committee; Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee; and Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the No. 3 House Republican.
David Keene, American Conservative Union president, says House Republicans were becoming more conservative and more aggressive, even under Michel's leadership. Get-along strategies were being rejected, as was apparent when the 1994 budget was unanimously opposed by Republicans. The new minority leader, whom Mr. Keene expects will be Gingrich, ``will be pushing an agenda. Michel had none of his own.'' There will also be ``a more articulate expounding of Republican ideas,'' he says.
Stephen Salmore, a Rutgers University political scientist, agrees that the GOP message will have a ``harder edge'' in coming years. However, that may not be to the party's advantage, he warns. ``To the degree that Gingrich goes after a social agenda, there will be real problems here,'' he says.
Conservative Republicans insist that their appeal is broader than Mr. Salmore suggests. Mr. Shirley says that on social issues conservatives are ``on the right side, whether it is voluntary prayer in the schools, or in education, especially the voucher programs.'' The heart of that message is freedom, he adds.
MR. Hess says a more aggressive Republican stance may actually be ``more in keeping with the frustration in the countryside. Their style is different. Their aspirations are different.''
Michel was satisfied to remain many years in the House, even though he was in the minority for his entire career. ``As this new generation comes in, they are much less satisfied with being in the minority,'' Hess says.
The greatest difference with someone like Gingrich may not be social issues but style, Hess says. Every indication is that the next leader will be much more obstructionist. ``Michel had a calming effect on his people. With him removed, they will be less loyal as the opposition. Michel was the Establishment. These are disestablishmentarians,'' Hess says.
Is that good or bad for the GOP? Hess doesn't know. But one thing appears certain. ``Politics now will be more raw, with more sharp edges, and generally less pleasant, but not necessarily less effective,'' he says.
Michel says only time will tell whose tactics are better. ``I've had my detractors. But that's who I am.... I wish I could have been more effective at times.''