WASHINGTON — THEY came, 73 of them, to shake up the place. And there is little doubt they have succeeded.
They are the House of Representatives' Republican freshman class, the engine of the GOP revolution and the most powerful group of congressional newcomers to hit Washington in a generation. They are often compared to the 75-member House Democratic freshman class of 1974, the so-called Watergate babies. The big difference, though, is the Democratic newcomers came to shake up the leadership of their own party, while the current crop of freshmen came to work with their leaders to shake up the whole system.
Nowadays, freshmen seem to be everywhere, issuing responses to President Clinton's weekly radio addresses, spearheading efforts to eliminate cabinet agencies, and, at times, talking back to their GOP elders.
''They've done remarkably well,'' says Prof. James Thurber, a congressional expert at American University in Washington. ''They have pushed more back-door deauthorizing than we've read about.''
Aside from their sheer numbers, totaling about a third of the Republican majority, a figure that confers automatic clout, Speaker Newt Gingrich has helped them gain added influence by giving newcomers much-coveted slots in powerful committees such as Rules and Ways and Means. Some freshmen even chair subcommittees. As a result, the House has approved the elimination of more than 200 government programs.
Freshmen in a Funk
So why do some Republican freshmen, dare we say it, appear to be in a funk?
The mood was a bit downcast last week on the first anniversary of the signing of the Contract With America, House Republicans' campaign manifesto and, as it turned out, agenda for their first 100 days in power. The problem, as some Republicans see it, is the Senate has let them down. Of 26 legislative items in the contract, only four have been signed into law, the last one being the Paperwork Reduction Act on May 22.
Some items are being handled in the overall negotiations over the budget, such as changes in the tax code, but the Senate rejected two of the most symbolically important measures - constitutional amendments to require a balanced federal budget and term limits for members of Congress.
''Most people in my district know that we [in the House] kept our word,'' says Rep. Steve Chabot, a GOP freshman from Ohio. ''I hope that as the public becomes more and more aware of the Senate's lack of action, this sentiment will reach the Senate and they'll get with the program.''
Speaker Gingrich has himself acknowledged that, in hindsight, Senate Republicans, incumbents, and candidates should have been brought on board a year ago and asked to sign the contract along with House Republicans.
Instead, Senate GOP freshmen, many of whom share the same budget-cutting zeal of their House brethren, are left to carp from the sidelines without the stick of the contract to wield.
Rep. Charles Bass, a freshman Republican from New Hampshire, plays down the significance of the contract with voters. ''People will not remember the 104th Congress because of the Contract With America, but because we passed a balanced-budget resolution,'' he says.
Still, Democrats are probably glad that House and Senate Republicans did not coordinate from the very start on their game plans. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, more moderate than the insurgent House leadership, has had a hard time as it is floating suggestions of compromise with the Democratic White House.
Last weekend Senator Dole suggested that he may be willing to come down a bit on a plan to cut taxes by $245 billion over seven years, and House freshman David McIntosh (R-Ind.) immediately responded that he would urge other freshmen to oppose any decrease in the tax cut.
Dole was also warned last week, in a letter from Senate GOP freshmen, not to ''raise the white flag'' in the battle with Clinton over balancing the budget.
''We will oppose all attempts by the president to lift the debt ceiling before agreeing to a balanced budget,'' said the letter, released by Sen. Spencer Abraham, a freshman Republican from Michigan.
''Freshmen are more committed to balancing the budget,'' says Congressman Bass. ''We didn't live through the past congresses where they got used to voting for an unbalanced budget.''
Gingrich certainly finds it useful to have a conservative bulwark backing him up in negotiations with the Senate and the White House, say several freshmen. In a kind of good-cop, bad-cop routine, Gingrich can at times talk a moderate line and win points with Democrats. Last week, when the House, driven by freshmen, appeared to be on its way to gutting what's left of self-rule in the District of Columbia, Gingrich jumped in and put on the brakes.
Democratic leaders can also make freshman Republicans the fall guy when Gingrich comes out with hard-line positions.
Example: Gingrich has insisted that the House may block a vote on lifting the federal debt limit - a crucial move to ensure the government's credit-worthiness - until Clinton goes along with the GOP balanced-budget plan. But at the White House last week, Chief of Staff Leon Panetta avoided blaming Gingrich directly for this position. Instead, Mr. Panetta told reporters, the speaker needs to educate his freshmen.
And lest anyone think freshmen have too much power, consider a recent report by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. It blames the new Congress for falling far short of a government overhaul, merely cutting many objectionable programs instead of eliminating them.
But freshmen have found that eliminating programs is easier said than done. A signature freshman plan to eliminate four cabinet agencies, was quickly scaled back to target just the Commerce Department. And even if they succeeded in taking the department's sign down, most of its functions and funding will survive, either as separate agencies or parts of other cabinet departments.