WASHINGTON — AS there mutiny on the USS Gingrich?
Eighty days into their voyage, House Republicans seem tattered. Democratic challenges are gaining strength. Even GOP freshmen are openly dissenting with their leadership.
Clearly, the skipper has noticed the trouble. Behind closed doors, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia has admonished his ranks to ''hang together, or hang separately,'' as one member characterizes the message. Openly, he has appealed to voters via satellite ''town meetings,'' urging them to pressure their representatives to stay the course.
The problems reflect the 80-knot pace of the Republican agenda. Members are tired. But the rifts also tell tales of a resurgent president and of the Speaker himself.
''Newt is dragging the members around like the Volga boatman, straining to get the barge down the canal,'' says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. ''The members are staggering under the pace in the House.''
Splits in the GOP unity surfaced this week when some Republicans threatened to vote against the GOP welfare bill, saying variously that the reforms were too harsh or would encourage abortion. The bill is nonetheless expected to pass today. Republicans will also run into trouble next week over term limits, which many believe won't pass.
But the most visible split came earlier this week, when roughly half of the GOP members signed a letter seeking a major revision in the party's centerpiece tax credit for families. The list of names grows daily (105 at last count).
The tax provision provides a $500 per-child tax credit for families earning between $20,000 and $200,000. It is the main part of the Republican tax package, costing roughly $105 billion over five years. The dissenting members want the eligibility cap set at $95,000, which they say would save as much as $14 billion.
Rep. Ray LaHood (R) of Illinois, a freshman signatory, lauds the Speaker for his open style of leadership. The principal cosponsors of the letter ''walked into the Speaker's office last week and they talked about it,'' he says. ''When members have differences on issues, they can go talk to him.''
Mr. LaHood and fellow Republicans dismiss the suggestion that GOP unity is diminishing. Majority leader Richard Armey (R) of Texas said Wednesday the split over tax breaks indicated GOP members have spent too much time in Washington recently and are out of touch with their constituents.
But John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California, says the political pressures that come with proposals to cut taxes and reform welfare have exposed existing Republican fissures. ''Party unity is like a roof,'' he says. ''You notice the cracks only when the storm begins.''
Others are even less rosy, arguing that open dissent, noteworthy for its involvement of 35 freshmen and 10 committee chairmen, is evidence of the Speaker's unpopularity.
''Newt Gingrich has the highest negative poll numbers of any political figure in the country,'' says Mark Mellman, a Washington-based Democratic pollster. ''As he loses credibility, Republican policies lose credibility and his ability to govern evaporates.''
''If Gingrich had favorable ratings of 80 percent,'' Mr. Mellman adds, ''you wouldn't see his members go against him.''
Professor Baker agrees. ''Gingrich is overexposed,'' he says. ''His manner is too intrusive. He's like getting 50 pounds of fudge as a gift. It's too much at once.''
Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas counters: ''Newt's numbers are not hurting Republican unity. He's like an icebreaker. When you battle through tough issues, you get some dents.''
Whether the apparent differences in the GOP House conference are deep or superficial, Democrats have seized the opportunity. They have been criticizing the Republicans for attacking social programs for poor children while cutting taxes for the rich. ''Clinton has played the timing well, but the polls don't show it,'' Baker says.
The professor adds that the pace Republicans have kept so far may be working against them. The public doesn't have time to digest each piece of legislation. ''The value of any given piece is lost in the welter of rhetoric, promises, and threats,'' he says.
Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio admits as much. ''We're doing so much so quickly here in the House that a lot of people don't realize the significance of this legislation,'' he says.
Meantime, Republicans have two weeks left to complete the Contract With America in the first 100 days. Ari Fleischer, a GOP staffer in the House, says the leadership's response to the tax letter shows there's no slowing down. ''They're making paper airplanes out of it,'' he says. ''No retreats, no surrender.''