Who Can Run a House Divided?

Battle for the Speakership will shape not only GOP unity, but the future of key national issues leading up to 2000.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Stakes are high in the Republican contest for control of the House of Representatives - not only for Congress but for the nation's ability to tackle weighty problems such as Social Security and HMO reform leading up to the 2000 presidential election.

As a lineup of campaign-hardened personalities wages a 10-day race to replace Newt Gingrich and other House leaders, the underlying question is: Can anyone pull the Republicans together right now?

The task will be a formidable one. Strong ideological and generational differences, the slimmest majority in three decades, and a history of leadership turmoil among House Republicans all make comity and compromise difficult. Yet how well the GOP does at bridging those differences will affect the impeachment inquiry at the least - as well as the party's track record leading up to the presidential election.

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"They [Republicans] are going to have to choose: Either nothing's going to get done or they are going to have to do some serious compromising," says Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

For now, GOP contenders for the powerful Speaker's post appear to have heard the message voters sent Nov. 3 - that they quit fighting and get back to work. The new mantra: greater pragmatism. Indeed, both the Republicans leading Congress and the Clinton-Gore administration are eager to chalk up legislative achievements in the 106th Congress to bolster their chances for victory in 2000.

"Partisan battles may be great copy on the evening news ... but they don't accomplish the legislative programs that improve the lives of all Americans," says Rep. Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana, currently viewed as the front-runner to succeed Mr. Gingrich.

"We can find common ground," stresses Christopher Cox (R) of California, another candidate for the speakership. GOP lawmakers will hold a secret vote on Nov. 18 to choose new House leaders. Gingrich stepped down Friday amid GOP furor over the party's loss of five House seats in this month's midterm elections, which reduced the GOP majority from 228 to 223.

Yet despite such promises, experts question whether a House leadership shakeup can have a significant impact on uniting factions within the GOP and overcoming partisanship from both Republicans and Democrats that threatens to block major legislation. "When all is said and done, you have the same kinds of splits," says Ms. Sinclair, an expert on the House leadership.

Pretenders to the throne

Mr. Livingston is well aware of the challenges. As chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee, he is a seasoned dealmaker and consensus builder. But that role has often put him at odds with more hardline House GOP conservatives - just as it did Gingrich.

Indeed, conservatives - especially the dozens of younger, more radical GOP members who swept into the House in 1994 - were most vocal in calling for Gingrich to step down, charging that his willingness to bargain with the Democrats cost the GOP seats.

"It appeared to our base that we backed off our core principles," says Matt Salmon (R) of Arizona, bemoaning the GOP's "spiraling toward loss after loss over the last three years." He blamed Gingrich for the Republicans' failure this year to pass a bigger tax cut or reject more of Clinton's spending requests.

"There is a huge frustration that we lost the seats, that we didn't get a tax cut, and that we passed a Bill Clinton budget when we control both the House and Senate," says a staffer for Rep. David McIntosh (R) of Indiana.

Seeking a greater voice, several young party conservatives, including Mr. McIntosh, are now considering bids for House positions. As the GOP wrestles with establishing a new leadership team, they say the time is ripe for a generational shift.

"We've had a leadership vacuum for a couple of years," says Rep. Steve Largent (R) of Oklahoma, who is attempting to replace House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas. As leaders the GOP needs "newer, younger members," he says, "not the retreads ... not the old has-beens."

Although they represent a minority of GOP House members, the power of factional groups such as the class of 1994 conservatives to stymie legislation has been magnified by the further erosion of the GOP majority.

"Any group, if they decide to bolt on an issue, can bring it down," says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "Just six guys getting together can break it."

As a result, partisanship could increase. "There's a danger that [conservative House GOP members] could pull the party further to the right," says Ronald Peters, an expert on Congress at the University of Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Democrats may shift further to the left to consolidate support received in the recent election from minority groups and unions.

Rambunctious history

House Republicans have historically been more prone to leadership turmoil than Democrats, whose party culture is more pluralistic and suited to coalition building, says Mr. Peters. For example, Republicans have ousted House leaders more often than Democrats, as in 1958 when Charlie Halleck (R) of Indiana deposed Joe Martin (R) of Massachusetts, and again in 1964 when Gerald Ford (R) of Michigan unseated Halleck.

"The Republicans have always been willing to have these fights," says Peters. "The difference now is that they are in the majority."

Rep. J.C. Watts (R) of Oklahoma, who is running to replace Rep. John Boehner of Ohio as Republican conference chairman, agrees. "This is the way Republican politics works. You beat each other up ...," Rep. Watts says.

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