Conservative Democrats Join Republicans In Signs of a National Shift to the Right

LAST week demonstrated how much the political momentum has shifted to the right in the nation's capital. This week will begin to define the limits of that shift.

The House's passage of a balanced-budget amendment was significant not only for the vote count -- 300 to 132 -- but also for the new alliances it showed may be forming. A bloc of conservative Democrats joined with Republicans to approve the measure in what may presage cooperation on other items in the GOP ''Contract With America.''

At the same time, Democrats in the Senate were unable to narrow the scope of legislation that would restrict Washington's ability to impose regulations on state and local governments without providing funds for them. In the end, they joined GOP lawmakers to pass the unfunded-mandates measure 86 to 10.

This week the calculus will be different. The balanced-budget amendment faces stiff opposition in the Senate. Moreover, just 25 days into the 104th Congress, it seems clear that House Republicans will not be able to bring all 10 items in their Contract to a vote within 100 days, as promised, without some changes.

They are indicating they will have to take firmer control of the legislative process to meet that goal. Rep. Gerald Solomon (R) of New York, chairman of the House Rules Committee, says that in order to meet the deadline, he will have to rescind the new open rules, which allow free debate, because of an avalanche of amendments by Democrats. He vows a floor vote on unfunded mandates by the end of Tuesday.

''We're going to do what we have to do to stay on line,'' Mr. Solomon told the Monitor. ''If the Democrats don't cooperate we're going to have to start ramming things through.''

The next few weeks will point up the ideological divide between the parties and test the balance of power between different branches of government. Among the issues likely to be contested: welfare reform, a ban on assault weapons, and a number of tax-cut proposals.

Democrats, eager to slow the speeding GOP train, will concentrate much of their energies this week on the balanced-budget amendment in the Senate. Forty-one Democrats on Friday signed a letter to majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas stating that Republicans had a responsibility to show how they would balance the budget before passing the amendment. The number is significant, because that is the minimum needed to preserve a filibuster.

''The states should beware. The biggest unfunded mandate of all is the balanced-budget amendment,'' says Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. ''I'm not against amending the Constitution, but fiscal policy was wisely left to the elected representatives of the people. We should have the courage to pass bills to balanced the budget.''

House Republicans didn't get the amendment they had proposed in the Contract, either. Their original proposal required a three-fifths majority vote for any tax increase. When that version failed by 37 votes, the House passed an alternative with bipartisan sponsorship that left out the tax-limitation provision.

House Republicans will probably add another success to their record tomorrow with a vote to restrict unfunded federal mandates. Democrats in both the House and Senate have tried to write in exemptions for various health and environmental mandates, such as the Clean Water Act. But most of their amendments have been attempts to alter technical aspects of the legislation, and those efforts failed to change significantly the version passed in the Senate.

Chairman Solomon says House Democrats have offered in excess of 150 amendments to the unfunded-mandates bill in what amounts to a delaying tactic. In a signal of the speed with which House Republicans are prepared to force roll-call votes on Contract items, they limited hearings on the bill because similar legislation had already been entertained by the previous Congress.

The 86 freshmen in the House, Solomon says, have an obligation to know the issue.

''If we're talking about the budget, we're holding hearings across the country,'' he says. Tax and spending cuts ''are new concepts. But the 73 Republican freshman already understand [the unfunded-mandates issue]. Certainly the 13 new Democrats should understand it too.''

Meeting the 100-day deadline isn't simply a matter of the party trying to save face, Solomon adds. ''All the Contract items tie in with what we'll do with the budget, so that authorization needs to be in place.''

Beyond the beltway, the restriction on unfunded federal mandates is a crucial element to ratification of a balanced-budget amendment. Thirty-eight states must approve the amendment -- and many are worried that Washington will just pass on fiscal burdens to them.

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