Political Endgame on the Hill

Courteous Congress? Not when debating a budget bill

IT must have sounded like a fraternity party. Members were shouting and arguing to the point where the police checked in to make sure everything was all right.

The scene wasn't a college campus, but the office of Rep. Tom DeLay (R) of Texas one recent day in the Capitol building.

While visits by people with badges may be rare on Capitol Hill, they underscore the intensity of the debate now swirling as lawmakers put the final touches on the huge budget bill - and define the scope of the Republican revolution.

Such exchanges take place ''almost daily!'' Mr. DeLay, the House majority whip, says with a laugh. ''We have some very animated meetings.''

Still, rank-and-file Republicans speak of a largely collegial process of give and take with the leadership that has been going on for weeks. ''The daily meetings are excellent,'' says Rep. Vern Ehlers (R) of New York, a moderate with concerns about a provision in the bill to allow oil and gas drilling in the Alaskan Arctic.

As with last week's last-minute horse-trading to pass a major reform of Medicare, the battle to win votes is in full swing again. This time, it's for an even bigger bill: the huge budget package that incorporates the Medicare overhaul plus the reform of Medicaid, welfare, farm subsidies, and a host of other sensitive issues. The House is due to vote today and the Senate tomorrow.

The action is more fun to watch in the House, where even the most persuasive of Republican leaders is hard-pressed to keep his 233-member corps in line. Representatives thought to be in the ''yes'' column suddenly shift into ''undecided'' when it becomes clear they can get something for their vote. And with a bill this big, there's lots of room for negotiation.

As whip, the third-most-powerful House representative, DeLay's job is to count votes, register concerns, and bring the toughest ones to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. DeLay calls it ''growing the vote.''

''We haven't had to break an arm or a leg yet,'' says DeLay, who won't reveal how many votes he still needs for the budget bill. ''It's much different from the Democrats. We don't buy votes with bridges.''

Democrats, who used to run Congress, know the process well and they doubt it has changed substantially. ''When members know something is a must vote, they hold out for changes, usually nothing too big,'' says a senior Democratic aide. ''Things look more in flux than they really are.''

Often, he says, it's not immediately clear what a member got for his or her vote because it may not be in the bill itself. Perhaps it's a campaign appearance in the member's district by the leadership. Or it could be a change in another piece of legislation.

There are also negative incentives. Since Rep. Dick Zimmer (R) of New Jersey voted ''no'' on Medicare last week - one of only six Republicans to do so - questions have surfaced about whether his party will back him fully in his race to win the Senate seat of retiring Democrat Bill Bradley.

Then there's the Gingrich factor. Even though Medicare passed comfortably, the Speaker was reportedly very upset with the six defectors, who may have to fight to keep coveted committee seats. Those six members are being watched especially closely for how they vote on this week's budget bill. In some cases, though, the leadership may be willing to cut some slack.

Rep. Peter Torkildsen (R) of Massachusetts represents a traditionally Democratic district, and his seat is vulnerable. The concerns that led him to vote against Medicare reform - that Northeast states get a raw deal - exist also with Medicaid, and his vote this week remains up in the air.

But Mr. Torkildsen is getting some help: The Republican governors of Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey are in close touch with Republican leaders in Congress trying to change the formula for Medicaid reform.

The biggest item that threatens to sink the bill is reform of farm subsidies - the issue that produced the shouting match in DeLay's office. Powerful Republicans want to keep the existing subsidy structure; other equally powerful GOP members favor phasing down crop subsidies. If Republicans lose a dozen votes over agriculture, final passage of the whole budget bill could be thrown in doubt.

The provision to permit drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) could also cost the GOP votes. A number of Republicans are raising ANWR in the daily meetings, says Congressman Ehlers.

But because ANWR accounts for about $2 billion in revenues over the GOP's seven-year budget plan, those who want the provision out must come up with alternative revenues or budget cuts. For that reason, says a DeLay aide, ANWR will likely stay in.

Moderate Republicans, a key swing group of about 30 members, have already scored some victories. For example, they have also won removal of a provision repealing the Davis-Bacon Law, which requires federal contractors to pay workers the prevailing wage.

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