GOP Unity Faces Test in New Congress
WASHINGTON — FOR Congress's new Republican majority, governing will never seem as easy as it does today. An agenda is in place. Public support is high. No popular programs have been slashed yet.
But starting tomorrow, when a Republican takes the Speaker's chair for the first time in 40 years, the hard work begins. To enact any of the Republican plan will require the alignment of competing power centers: not just Republican vs. Democrat, but also House vs. Senate and Congress vs. White House.
How the maneuvering comes out will help determine which party will win the White House in 1996 - and perhaps dominate the Washington political dynamic over the next decade.
The trickiest of the faults lines, interestingly, may emerge within the new Republican ruling majority, between the younger, populist members of the House and the more staid Republican senators, say GOP members and staff.
Although the ``Contract With America'' - the House Republican blueprint for legislative change, signed by all but six of the chamber's 230-member Republican majority - creates the appearance of a Republican juggernaut, the reality is more complicated.
Working right up to the opening gavel of the 104th Congress, Republican House and Senate leaders have been trying to iron out differences in their stances on a range of issues, such as the line-item veto, the balanced-budget constitutional amendment, and the plan to extend the application of laws to Congress.
Another point of debate is over whether a presidential line-item veto should extend to entitlements and tax cuts.
``Those are issues that are unresolved,'' says a Senate Republican aide. ``Clearly they are going to get a little more complicated than people might have anticipated.
Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Sunday that the House's plan to require a three-fifths majority to approve a tax increase - included in the balanced-budget amendment - was ``not looked upon with much favor in the Senate.''
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, who will head the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said that such a provision could bring the defeat of the balanced-budget measure. As a constitutional amendment, both houses must approve it by a two-thirds majority, and Mr. Hatch does not believe he could muster enough Democratic support for the procedural change. Republicans will control the Senate by only a slim majority, 53 to 47.
Hatch also questions whether a proposed constitutional amendment to impose term limits on members of Congress has the two-thirds majority necessary to pass the Senate.
But the House also appears to be losing some steam on that issue, much to the consternation of outside groups agitating for term limits.
Another item in the contract that has produced debate between House and Senate Republicans is welfare reform.
The House contract calls for an end to all benefits after five years, with the states holding the option of a benefit cutoff after two years.
Republican senators and their aides have expressed concern that the House Republican plan - most famous for its suggestion that states consider orphanages for children from poor and troubled families - could leave innocent children homeless and hungry.
In fact, a leading senator on the issue, Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, who will head the Labor and Human Resources Committee, has put forth her own proposal that the federal government turn the welfare system over to the states.
In exchange, the federal government would take over the states' portion of payments for Medicaid, which provides health-care for the poor.
On environmental issues, observers see the ``anti-big-government'' House more eager than the Senate is to cut regulations designed to protect the environment.
Despite all the debate, though, the House will pass eight of the 10 provisions in the Contract With America and the Senate will pass six, predicts David Mason, a Congress-watcher with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
``The tendency in the Senate will be to water down rather than stop the agenda,'' Mr. Mason says.
``You will see senators who don't want to be left behind in the dust,'' says Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, which held an orientation for the new members of Congress.
Mason also predicts that Congress will vote to eliminate two Cabinet departments from among five that the Heritage Foundation has identified as expendable: Commerce, Labor, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Energy. Mason says it is symbolically important to shut down government agencies, even if most of their functions are moved to other agencies or passed down to the states.
If an agency is eliminated completely, he reasons, it will be more difficult to resuscitate it than if it is just cut back.