WASHINGTON — During the first year of the Republican "revolution," nobody was abler with a bayonet than Rep. Mark Souder.
The moment House Speaker Newt Gingrich showed any sign of tempering his bid to shrink the federal government, the Indiana freshman Republican would publically poke him. Capitol Hill reporters liked his candor. The Speaker, most often, did not.
But last week, the irrepressible Mr. Souder stopped talking. No entreaties, no jibes, no explanation.
His silence demonstrates how much things have changed in the House since Senate majority leader Bob Dole notched the GOP presidential nomination. These days, the party's agenda, and most of the headlines, come from the Senate.
For House Republicans, particularly freshmen, it's time to rally behind Senator Dole and focus on November. While they point to several legislative triumphs, including House passage of much of the Contract With America, Mr. Gingrich's foot soldiers have made little headway in opinion polls. For many, the goal is no longer ransacking federal Washington, but getting reelected.
"We got trampled by the White House in the budget negotiations, and we took a beating in the press," says one prominent GOP freshman. "It's taking a while for some of our members to get their sea legs back."
Indeed, Ohio Rep. John Boehner, a member of Gingrich's leadership team, concedes that there is "a little apprehension now" among House Republicans. Last year at this time, he recalls, they were in "high gear." But after a bruising winter and a distracting primary season, Mr. Boehner says, the revolution has hit a lull.
In recent days, Democrats have poured into this gap in the GOP ramparts, stalling the Dole agenda in the Senate and stirring up a fight over raising the minimum wage. A $60-million ad campaign sponsored by organized labor has, according to Boehner, "pummeled" many GOP members.
One of those targeted by labor is Rep. Dick Chrysler, of Michigan. "They're lying," says Mr. Chrysler, arguing that one TV spot running in his district accuses him of voting against the minimum wage, though no vote has been held. "I hope [labor leaders] realize that if we win this election, they're finished."
His frustration is understandable. Some pollsters suggest Democrats could reclaim control of the House. This prospect, some members say, has led them to watch their tongues. "Some of us are thinking about ways not to lose, rather than ways to win," says Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts (R). "I've seen a bit of that."
He acknowledges the loss of momentum has chastened many of his colleagues. "Whenever you come to this place, and you're not immediately involved in seeking reelection, things can never go fast enough," he says. "It just takes time to get things through the system."
The House's diminished profile is exemplified by the behavior of Gingrich himself. After an uncharacteristic period of silence, and a decision to cede control of daily operations to majority leader Dick Armey, he has reemerged as a cog in the Dole election team. He does most of his talking now in carefully chosen venues.
In an interview with The Washington Times, Gingrich noted that "it is Dole who will set the agenda for the summer and the fall, and nobody else can do that." He also predicted that the House would pass a minimum-wage increase - a victory for Democrats and GOP moderates.
Adding to the House's woes is a one-man assault by New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, who has blamed House members in part for the party's poor approval ratings. Since Dole's primary triumph, House members seem loath to attack the more-moderate Senate, which they once blasted for stalling their agenda.
Yet few House Republicans paint a purely bleak portrait. Voters will appreciate their passage of landmark telecommunications and agricultural reforms, they say, as well as the 1996 budget, which shaved $23 billion from the deficit. Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough (R) acknowledges that senators have held sway in closed-door conference meetings lately, but he says House members, particularly freshmen, are becoming increasingly vocal. "We are every bit as relevant as the Senate was last year," he says. "Even if we are not leading the way on major issues, we're still letting the Senate know what they can and can't get away with."
Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R) explains that the decline in GOP unity this year reflects the nature of the agenda: Items like agricultural reforms and the minimum wage, he says, tend to break along regional lines, unlike the Contract, which enjoyed broad support.
Even Souder offers an explanation for his vanishing act. He has been swamped with committee work, he says, and has grown wary of tweaking the leadership as the election approaches. Yet he acknowledges the mood is less electric. "It's always more fun when you're on a roll," he says. "It's like marriage, or a first date, or a new job. You come in idealistic, and sometimes you are deluged with disappointment. I think that applies to some of us."