Republicans Stew Over Losing Streak On Major Reforms

By one reckoning, President Clinton and congressional Democrats are close to being 3-to-0 against the Republican agenda.

The score totes up like this: Two recent big votes have gone the Democrats' way, with their position prevailing on term limits and international family-planning funds. If they derail the balanced budget amendment, they can count a third major victory.

The GOP's losing streak, along with a gnawing feeling that things are moving too slowly, has some Republican members anxious. Reportedly, there's even some unhappiness in the ranks about House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his continued grip on power.

But Republican leaders are counseling patience. Their time will come, they say. The president's budget isn't going to sail through Congress untouched, for one thing. And several nominees for top administration jobs face tough confirmation fights.

"It takes time to develop good legislation," wrote House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas in a recent memo to GOP members. "However, the Speaker, other top leaders, and I believe it is now time to step up the pace and act."

Still, recent weeks have not been kind to Republican priorities. Consider the details:

* The term-limits constitutional amendment went down to defeat in the House amid a flurry of competing proposals, none of which could muster a two-thirds majority.

* Congress voted for early release of international family-planning funds, despite opposition from abortion opponents, including most Republicans, who argued that the funds free up other monies to pay for abortions overseas.

* The balanced-budget constitutional amendment, which the president cannot stop but has actively opposed, teeters on the verge of yet another one-vote defeat in the Senate this afternoon. At press time, Senate majority leader Trent Lott of Mississippi was offering to change the measure slightly if it would win another vote.

House Republicans, especially the party's conservative wing, are not amused by all this. Nor are their supporters outside Congress. Their concerns are popping up on several fronts: Some conservatives criticized Speaker Newt Gingrich for playing host to the Rev. Jesse Jackson for the president's State of the Union address, and some House Republicans are upset over what they see as the lack of a clear GOP House agenda and the slow pace of the 105th Congress.

According to The Hill newspaper, speculation is rife in the GOP caucus over whether Mr. Gingrich can hang onto power. One GOP staffer dismisses the report as "speculation during a time when people don't have enough to think about."

Dave Mason of the conservative Heritage Foundation sees three factors influencing Capitol Hill Republicans. "First is a continuation of the president's very successful campaign strategy to get the focus on issues that he wanted to talk about." Second, "Republicans really do lack an agenda." In the GOP's favor, however, is the mounting perception of scandal at the White House, Mr. Mason says.

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution says that "in part the Republicans may still be shell-shocked from the way things backfired in the 104th Congress." In addition, he says, part of the GOP strategy this year has been to let to president do the proposing and "get into trouble all by himself."

The GOP aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says, "The agenda is there." But he says development of legislation that has bipartisan support involves a more complex and lengthy process than afforded by the first 100 days of the 104th Congress.

"This frustration is interesting," House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas says of his members. "You will find this frustration more in the large class of freshmen from the 104th [Congress].... Their natural point of reference is, boy, we were moving in the 104th. But if you take a look, this is quite a normal pace for the opening of a Congress ... and in particular, for the first Congress after a presidential election."

In the meantime, the president already faces rough waters in Congress. Four Cabinet nominations are hung up in the Senate. In deepest trouble is Labor Secretary-designate Alexis Herman, who faces touch questions over possible involvement in Clinton fund-raising. Clinton's candidate for director of Central Intelligence, Anthony Lake, is under attack for allegedly misleading Congress over Iranian arms shipments to Bosnia, among other issues.

In addition, Charlene Barshefsky, nominee for US trade representative, awaits confirmation pending resolution of a waiver she needs because she once worked on behalf of the Canadian government. And Energy Secretary-designate Federico Pea has been caught in a fight between the White House and Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska over nuclear-waste storage.

On the budget front, the president's proposal, while not "dead on arrival," is far from ambulatory. Last week, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Archer (R) of Texas blasted the president's tax-cut proposal as providing "virtually no tax relief from now and the year 2002 and [raising] taxes on the American people once President Clinton leaves office." The administration's language technically provides for his proposed "middle-class" tax cuts to expire on Dec. 31, 2000.

This shows the GOP can stalemate Clinton, Masons says. But such action won't "help the Republicans retake the agenda."

His suggestion? "Tax reform. Stop talking about a budget deal with the president ... and start talking about abolishing the [Internal Revenue Service]." He also urges that the GOP aggressively push cultural issues.

The Republicans "must regroup and figure out what they stand for," Mr. Hess says.

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