GOP Revolution Underway

House begins to make good on its promises

CALL it a revolution in suits and ties.

The Republican takeover of Capitol Hill - the first in 40 years - swept nearly everything before it this week. Long-sought reforms were adopted. Closed meetings were opened. Time-honored rules were repealed.

Newly elected House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and his troops promised change. Within hours of accepting the gavel from Democrats, the GOP began delivering. And it was clearly just the beginning.

Rep. Robert Dornan (R) of California, a conservative firebrand, called the Republican revolution the end of ``40 Biblical years in the desert with very little manna coming down from heaven.''

Mr. Gingrich spoke of walking onto the balcony of his new office and admiring the view down Constitution Mall - an ``unbelievable'' sight that filled him with ``the sense of being part of history and part of the romantic myth of this country.''

Such reveries didn't last long. Jockeying over the political agenda for the next two years began in earnest. Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate, as well as President Clinton, laid down their markers on taxes, the budget, welfare, and other priority issues.

Gingrich promised that Congress would move swiftly on campaign-finance reform, lobbying reform, and a ban on gifts. But as he assumed power, he doggedly held to the agenda that Republicans had promised voters in 1994 in their ``Contract With America.''

The contract's preamble prescribes eight reforms to congressional rules, and the GOP moved promptly to pass them. Amendments were not allowed, leading to howls of ``gag rule'' from Democrats. Republicans took a ``what-goes-around, comes-around'' attitude after years of similar treatment under the Democrats.

In the end, House Democrats approved in large numbers - in a few instances unanimously - the initial Republican reforms. Some of those reforms had begun years ago as Democratic proposals, only to languish as senior Democrats refused to move them forward. The GOP measures, which now await Senate action, include:

* Changes in the way spending requests are accounted for.

* Limits on the Speaker's tenure to eight years, and on committee and subcommittee chairs to six years.

* A ban on proxy voting.

* Opening of all committee meetings to the public.

* A rule requiring a three-fifths majority approval for tax increases. This change, which some members call unconstitutional, passed with a lower margin of victory, 279 to 152.

* An independent audit of House operations.

* So-called ``congressional accountability,'' a requirement that Congress follow labor laws, such as those governing wages, disabled rights, and workplace safety, that it imposes on the rest of the country.

The House cut congressional staff by a third, eliminated three committees, and rescinded the floor votes of the five nonvoting delegates, including the District of Columbia's representative.

The more deliberative Senate will consider the House-passed reforms in its own time. At the top of the Senate plans lies a bill to ban ``unfunded mandates,'' spending requirements handed to states by the federal government that aren't paid for, followed by a ``congressional accountability'' bill. Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, the new majority leader, laid out his own agenda: a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, a line-item veto for the president (which together make up item No. 1 in the Contract).

Dole also proposed a repeal of the War Powers Act, which restricts the president's ability to deploy troops, but also proposed denying the president the right to use US troops in United Nations operations.

Congressional Democrats and President Clinton expressed support for some of the Republican plans, such as banning unfunded mandates, but laid out their own agendas as well, ideas with an uncertain future in the new world of Republican congressional rule. Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota put forth a five-point agenda focusing on worker retraining, health-care reform, teen pregnancy, balancing the budget by 2003, and congressional reform.

Areas of common purpose are emerging, and it's appearing likely that 104th Congress will produce legislation that the president will sign, members say. But the battlegrounds are also emerging. In the immediate future, Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio sees conflict over the balanced-budget amendment, tax cuts, and the line-item veto. Later in the year, he says, look for battles over welfare reform and a GOP plan to cut federal regulation.

So the old adage, the more things change the more they stay the same, seems to be holding. A walk down congressional hallways Wednesday had a certain familiar feel: Lobbyists were out in full force, and in many cases, corporate sponsors footed the bill for receptions.

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