WASHINGTON — HOUSE Republicans, trying to spur the biggest changes in federal policy in modern times, have made substantial progress as they reach the halfway point of the 100-day period in which they promised to ``revolutionize'' Washington.
Acting at minuteman speed, the House of Representatives has passed six major bills in just a few short weeks, fulfilling close to half of the GOP ``Contract With America.''
But whether Republicans achieve the fundamental redefinition of the reach and role of Washington that they had hoped will depend more on the second half of their 100-day march than the first.
The most difficult aspects of the Contract are still to come, and the slower-moving Senate has proved an obstacle to House-generated initiatives. (Public view of Contract, Page 3.)
``Real change is very hard work,'' Speaker Newt Gingrich said in a speech last week. ``The welfare state has failed, and we do have to replace it to create an opportunity society.''
History doesn't provide many parallels to this Congress. Twice before in this century - in 1933, during the Great Depression, and in 1965 - Washington lawmakers tackled ambitious agendas in short order. But those periods were driven by presidential initiative.
Washington's current agenda is controlled by Congress, fueled by the landmark rise of the Republican Party last November. Not since the late 1860s, when Andrew Johnson was president, has Congress spurred such broad changes in policy.
So far, the House has passed with bipartisan support such long-debated bills as the balanced-budget amendment and line-item veto.
The remaining bills in the Contract, the House GOP agenda, encapsulate the core tenets of the Republican vision: smaller government, increased federalism, and fundamental recrafting of the social-safety net.
Turning these ideals into law will test the political courage of the new order and public appetite for its goals.
``I do think what they are doing is counterrevolutionary,'' says Evelyn Brodkin, an expert on social policy at the University of Chicago. ``They are making an attempt to undo the social-welfare protections developed over 60 years, but in selective areas. There are profound implications, and as people realize the extent [of the proposed changes], we might begin to see some brakes.''
The first tests will come immediately. The House Appropriations Committee begins devising plans for cutting billions of dollars in spending and setting Congress on its path toward a balanced budget by 2002 in accord with Republican promises. Complicating that task are a number of tax-cut proposals working their way through the Ways and Means Committee.
While the first set of bills has enjoyed broad bipartisan support, with dozens of conservative Democrats crossing party lines, the second half of the Contract drive will challenge that alliance as well as Republican unity.
MANY conservative Democrats see little wisdom in cutting taxes when Congress is promising to balance the budget. GOP moderates oppose a proposed year-long ban on federal regulations, a bill that is now heading for a floor vote. And Republicans are divided over the number of terms they should limit themselves to by constitutional amendment.
But the most heated debate may center on plans to reform welfare, the first step in a effort to transform a number of so-called entitlement programs.
Republicans are also proposing to overhaul Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor.
More than a debate about costs, welfare reform is about the relationship between states and the federal government and the kind of social protections Washington should provide.
Separate GOP bills would replace a handful of poverty-assistance programs, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children and nutrition plans for needy students and infants, with block grants enabling states to devise their own systems.
GOP leaders argue that states are closer to the problem, and need the flexibility to design programs that break the cycles of poverty and illegitimacy. The welfare-reform plan, which bars unwed teenaged mothers and legal aliens from receiving some benefits, would save $23 billion, Republicans say.
But critics, including Democrats and some conservatives, decry the plan as cruel to children and ill-conceived. Social policy analysts say much of the current debate is based on the false premise that people are on welfare by choice, not as a result of circumstances beyond their control.