Democratic, GOP Roles In Congress Reshuffled

Democrats can't play blame-game anymore, and some GOP support could move to Clinton

BEGINNING about six weeks from now, Democrats will run the country with only marginal interference from Republicans.

"The blame game is over," says Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas, leader of the conservative "boll weevil" Democrats in the House of Representatives.

His words are echoed by Democrats all over Capitol Hill these days, who point out to each other that they will no longer be able to blame Republicans for government gridlock.

As Democrats appear increasingly to close ranks behind the still-vague Clinton agenda, Republicans are sorting out their own new position. "We're both more important and less important than we were before," says Tony Blankley, press secretary for House minority whip Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia.

For four years, the role of the Republican minority in Congress has been to sustain the vetoes of a Republican president. The president himself represented Republicanism for most voters.

Now that role is gone. With 177 of 435 representatives and 43 of 100 senators, the Republican Party has numbers enough only to protect filibusters in the Senate from closure motions.

But the Republicans in Congress - out from the shadow of the president - play a larger role in defining their party.

On Monday, the House Republicans ousted one of their moderate leaders, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, and elected a more aggressive conservative, Rep. Richard Armey of Texas, as chairman of the Republican Conference.

The House minority leader, Rep. Bob Michel (R) of Illinois, is a mild-mannered diplomat. But the other two GOP leaders - Representatives Gingrich and Armey - are cut from more populist, confrontational cloth.

Instead of what Mr. Blankley calls the "high Toryism" that President Bush represented, "now the party will begin to be seen by the American people as more populist, as the party of progressive conservatives."

Many Republicans are talking in bipartisan tones these days. Even Senate minority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas has backed away from his sharp post-election rhetoric, when he warned President-elect Clinton that during his "honeymoon" on the Hill, Republicans would serve as "chaperone."

Mr. Michel went so far as to speculate at a Monitor breakfast last week that if Mr. Clinton followed through on some of his more conservative-sounding campaign promises, he might carry more Republican votes in the House than Democrats. Other Republicans have voiced tentative support for Clinton proposals for balanced-budget laws, presidential line-item veto power, and time-limits for welfare recipients.

One Republican aide estimates that Clinton will strike a balance on many issues that would allow him to pick up about 50 Republican votes in the House, while losing only 30 to 50 of the more liberal Democrats.

Mr. Stenholm, the leading "boll weevil" today, is holding ranks with Democratic leaders, arguing that Clinton is a moderate politician and the Democratic House leadership has moved to the center to support him. "No question that a significant number of our [Democratic] caucus colleagues will try to pull the president to the left," Stenholm says, "but he doesn't want to go, and he has enough support that he doesn't have to go."

In the Senate, Clinton may have his toughest battles with his own party members. The Appropriations Committee chairman, Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, is one of the most powerful barons in Congress and he is staunchly opposed to any form of line-item veto - including the mild version backed by Clinton and House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington. If this authority to send budget items back for a separate vote gets early action from Clinton, it could lead to an early showdown.

In the House, Republicans were piqued at two setbacks in rules changes. The Democratic majority shut down so-called "special orders" where members could reserve time at the end of the business day to address the House. The House was, in fact, usually empty as the members spoke, but the speeches were televised by C-SPAN.

The House also voted to allow the five non-voting delegates from Guam, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia to vote in the Committee of the Whole House, which has the status of a committee vote and can determine the fate of a bill. Republicans see this as the de facto addition of five Democratic votes to the House.

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