Pictures From Newt's Revolution

GOP reforms the way Congress works before turning to other items in its album

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FROM Rep. Bernie Sanders (Ind.) of Vermont, Congress's only socialist, to the conservative Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, members of the new 104th Congress agree on one thing: Never in memory has a Congress started with such a sense of urgency and purpose.

Members may quarrel with the new Republican majority's agenda, and many do, but 2-1/2 weeks into the revolution of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, the accomplishments of the 104th already cannot be denied. Reforms in how Congress does business, left for dead just a few months ago, have been approved and put into action.

Already, both houses have signed off on their first piece of legislation -- the Congressional Accountability Act, requiring Congress to comply with labor laws that apply to the rest of the country. It awaits President Clinton's promised signature.

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Committees are meeting long into the night. The three-day work week has bumped up to five. And it's still only January. Typically, members are sworn in after the New Year, then take off for home or a vacation or a junket, to return in time for the president's State of the Union address.

''Overall, we can be quite satisfied with the progress,'' says Senator McCain.

Mr. Sanders, who leads the House's Progressive Caucus, calls the GOP's ''Contract With America'' a ''disaster agenda.'' But, he adds, ''I do say they have a clear understanding of what they want.''

Even Speaker Gingrich, under attack for a book deal that has raised questions about a conflict of interest, gamely asserts that the revolution is on track. But for all the hoopla about radical change, Congress's jackrabbit start has also meant an early return to the partisan bickering that last year sent Congress's public approval rating to historic lows.

Democrats sense an opening with Gingrich's book contract and his dealings with media magnate Rupert Murdoch, and they're not mincing words. Tensions exploded last week when Rep. Carrie Meek (D) of Florida was censured for criticizing Gingrich's deal from the House floor, in a scene that left neither side looking good. ''I hope Congress rises above the bickering and stops behaving like a kindergarten,'' says Rep. Connie Morella (R) of Maryland. ''We've got to use debate time qualitatively.''

Partisan wrangling has gone beyond the merely sensational and deep into the bowels of lawmaking. Ms. Morella complains that on the bill to ban so-called unfunded mandates -- federal regulations putting demands on states for which there is no funding -- Democrats have already offered 183 amendments, a lot of them duplicated three or four times.

IN the Senate, Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia has already demonstrated his ability to bring proceedings to a halt -- spawning the term ''Byrdlock'' -- over unfunded mandates.

Congressional observers assert, however, that lawmaking is supposed to be messy. Shifting legislative alliances and partisan skirmishing are the name of the game. Already it is clear that the moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats in both houses hold the key swing votes; when the House votes this week on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, the conservative Democratic version is likely to win.

The Republicans' Contract calls for a balanced-budget amendment that would require three-fifths of House and Senate members to approve any tax increases. Democrats oppose that provision; instead, 69 House Democrats have said they will support a balanced-budget amendment (enough to join with Republicans to pass the amendment) if it allows for tax increases with simple majority approval in both houses.

Despite Gingrich's promise of ''no compromise,'' the legislative agenda is chock-full of issues and positions that are being fine-tuned on the fly. On the question of federal aid for public broadcasting, for example, Gingrich now says he would consider funneling money directly to the small rural stations whose existence would be endangered by a cutoff.

The bottom line for all members is whether public expectations can be met. ''The Contract very explicitly promised only a vote,'' says Norman Ornstein, congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. ''But most Americans expect not just a vote, they expect action and major changes in policy.''

For some of the public, those expectations merit nothing less than a trip to the capital -- even to see members who don't represent them. An aide to Morella recounts how a delegation arrived in her office recently to lobby for the Contract. No matter that they were from California and Morella represents Maryland. They had been organized by a conservative radio station in San Diego (they paid their own way) and their job was to lobby the Maryland and Illinois delegations.

''This wouldn't have happened two years ago,'' says the aide.

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