What House will do under new leadership

Besieged GOP majority must show it can tackle hard issues like Social Security.

Even before the all-but-certain vote naming him House Speaker-elect Nov. 18, Rep. Robert Livingston announced his first legislative priority: saving Social Security.

House Resolution No. 1, he says, will separate Social Security from the federal budget, thereby safeguarding whatever portion of the surplus belongs to the nation's retirement system.

It's no coincidence that the new Republican leader of the House is pressing for action on a top policy priority of the White House. Indeed, several anticipated legislative goals of the newly elected GOP leadership - HMO reform, strengthening education, and tax relief - are high on the Clinton administration's wish-list.

Facing a slimmed-down, restless GOP majority, Representative Livingston and the rest of the House Republican team must prove they can unify Republican ranks and hammer out pragmatic legislative compromises - no easy task, experts say. Moreover, they must act quickly. By next summer, chances for major bipartisan legislation such as shoring up Social Security will be narrowed by the politics of the 2000 presidential campaign.

"They've only got six months," says Derrick Max, director of governmental affairs at the Cato Institute here. "If they don't get something done soon [on Social Security reform], they won't have time for a tax cut."

As a result, Livingston is exercising skills as an inside dealmaker honed while chairman of the influential House Appropriations Committee.

"I watched the masters," said Livingston, lauding the bipartisanship of his former fellow appropriators Republican Sil Conte and Democrat Bill Natcher. "On many occasions, [Republicans] are going to have to look for other votes," he stressed, "be they Democrat or Independent."

Livingston's ability to set a successful agenda and keep legislation on track will also depend on who becomes House majority leader following the Nov. 18 vote by the 223-strong House Republican Conference.

In a competitive, three-way race between incumbent majority leader Dick Armey of Texas, Conference vice chairman Jennifer Dunn of Washington, and Rep. Steve Largent of Oklahoma, Representative Armey claims to have the greatest number of votes. Yet because the balloting is secret, he and other candidates cannot be sure who ultimately will vote for them.

Who wins the No. 2 leadership is vital because the majority leader is responsible for rallying members behind legislation on the House floor. None of the current contenders, however, is considered ideal for the job. Indeed, some members are so dissatisfied with the current line-up that they have attempted to draft deputy majority whip Dennis Hastert of Illinois as a fourth candidate.

Majority leader Armey, for example, says that, as the experienced incumbent, he would act as a stabilizing force during the leadership transition. Although many members share Armey's economic conservatism, some also resent his role in a failed 1997 coup against outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Moreover, Armey and Livingston are not close allies, having clashed over major legislative issues such as aid to the International Monetary Fund.

Representative Dunn, a moderate Republican, says she will soften the party's sometimes harsh image and increase its appeal among women voters. Nevertheless, Dunn, elected in 1992, is viewed as lacking the mastery of the legislative process required to manage the House floor.

Representative Largent, a right-wing conservative elected in 1994, is promoting himself as a new, younger face with fresh ideas. He has strong appeal among the Christian right and social conservatives. But Largent is also considered less experienced in the nuts-and-bolts work of managing legislation on the floor.

The outcome of the leadership struggle is likely to affect how House Republicans approach a major upcoming debate with the Clinton administration: how best to shore up the nation's Social Security system before its assets begin a steep decline 20 years from now.

THE House Ways and Means Committee will begin hearings on the issue Nov. 19, and the White House has scheduled a conference on Social Security for Dec. 8 and 9.

Legislation on Social Security and other controversial issues faced by the 106th Congress - including education, abortion, and patients' rights - will be shaped not only by the House leadership but by who emerges as the new GOP chairmen of committees and sub-committees.

For example, new faces will replace the top Republican and Democrat on the House Social Security Subcommittee, which could play a key role in crafting a law to overhaul the federal retirement system.

Similarly, a change is under way in the chairmanship of the Early Childhood, Youth and Families Subcommittee, which will have a central role in rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act next year.

Whether the job goes to moderate Rep. Michael Castle (R) of Delaware, conservative Rep. Mark Souder (R) of Indiana, or Rep. Howard McKeon (R) of California could significantly affect the content of the act, which is the biggest education bill in the budget. A main topic for debate is expected to be how to reform the Title I remedial education programs, with some Republicans favoring a voucher system.

"It's a very contentious, touchy issue," says Mr. Max.

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