WASHINGTON — AS the new Congress enters its third week, it has become clear that the majority Republicans' political agenda may not come out of the congressional pulp mill exactly the way it went in.
Infighting among the Republicans themselves has endangered GOP proposals that would deny public assistance to legal immigrants and prohibit federal tax increases unless approved by three-fifths of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Endangered perhaps most by the lack of consensus is the ``Contract With America'' proposal for a constitutional amendment restricting the number of times members of Congress could seek reelection.
``We are going to have to work, claw, scratch, and everything else,'' says Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, a leader in the long-shot fight to find the two-thirds majority - 290 votes - needed for House passage of a term-limits constitutional amendment.
Admits Mr. McCollum, the sponsor of one version of term-limits legislation: ``It is going to be a hard row to hoe.''
Opposition to term limits transcends party allegiance. Many Republicans have joined Democrats in decrying the idea as unneeded, dangerous meddling with the Constitution.
House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri points to the November elections that gave the GOP control of Congress for the first time in 40 years: ``We have term limits. They are for two years and they work rather well.''
Term-limits backers castigate opponents as power addicts divorced from the reality of life outside Washington. Support is strongest among Republicans, more so in the House than in the Senate. Exploiting widespread voter disenchantment with politicians in general, many of the 73 GOP House freshmen campaigned on term limits.
Advocates, however, are themselves divided. Most agree that senators should be held to two six-year terms. But, while some believe House members should be limited to three two-year terms, others want four terms, and a majority favor six.
To paper over their differences and keep their cause alive, congressional adherents from both parties last week launched a drive dubbed ``Team 290'' to drum up the votes to pass some version of a term-limits amendment. Fifty-six Republicans and five Democrats signed pledges of support.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, however, threw his weight behind McCollum's proposal for a 12-year limit on House members. The measure has 166 cosponsors as opposed to 53 for the six-year limit proposal and about a dozen for an eight-year compromise.
``I think if you had a leadership for this country that had only a six-year learning curve that it's just too short,'' says Mr. Gingrich, a 17-year congressional veteran. He promised to put all three versions up for a vote in the House.
His backing of McCollum's measure ignited howls of indignation from term-limits advocates. They accuse him of ignoring GOP polling showing a vast majority of Americans favoring six-year House limits.
``It's funny when it comes to the length of time that voters want Mr. Gingrich to stay in Congress,'' says Paul Jacob, head of the Washington-based U.S. Term Limits advocacy group. ``I think he needs to face the realities of this country.'' Rep. Bob Inglis (R) of Florida, the sponsor of the proposal for a six-year House limit, disputed Gingrich's contention that ``a six-year learning curve is just too short.''
``I would point out to the Speaker that it is not a mysterious thing being a representative,'' says Mr. Inglis.
Decrying the 12-year limit as ``phony,'' Mr. Jacob says Gingrich's endorsement shows a desire to cling to power. Reiterating the core argument of term-limits advocates, Jacob says a regular turnover of federal lawmakers who know their service will be finite would make Congress more responsive to the public's needs and less of a repository for ``careerists.''
The idea of preventing politicians from accumulating undue power is not new. President Franklin Roosevelt's election to a fourth term in 1944 led to enactment eight years later of the 22nd Amendment, which bans individuals from seeking the presidency more than twice.
Since 1990, voters in 22 states have approved referendums setting congressional term limits. Critics dismiss the trend as an emotional response born of popular frustration with politicians' seeming inability to solve the country's mounting problems.
Opponents are now challenging the Arkansas congressional term-limits law in the US Supreme Court. They argue that term limits are unconstitutional because they bar voters from freely electing representatives of their choice.
``We have term limits and they are called elections. How long is long enough is up to the voters,'' says Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters, a plaintiff in the Arkansas case.
Agrees Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institute: ``The 1994 congressional election affirmed the power of voters to not just replace their individual representatives, but dramatically reshape the politics in Washington.''
Mr. Mann also points out that the Founding Fathers considered writing term limits into the Constitution, but rejected the idea.