Too Many Hands on Tiller Leave GOP Adrift

Lawmakers are back in their districts now for the Easter recess. But in GOP ranks, it's not a happy time: Three months into the 105th Congress, Republicans are adrift, unable to agree on how to implement their program and confront President Clinton.

Republicans want to fulfill their promises to balance the budget and cut taxes. But they are still dazed by the bashing they took over last year's government shutdowns - for which Mr. Clinton appears to have escaped blame. And they are determined not to set themselves up again for charges that they want to cut federal entitlements simply to give wealthy Americans a tax break.

In contrast to the last Congress, GOP strategy this year has been to wait out the president and force him to take the initiative on the tough choices ahead. But Clinton has been in no hurry to do so, insisting that his budget proposal achieves balance and saves Medicare - assertions Republicans and other observers dispute.

The president's gambit has succeeded, however, in opening up divisions among Republicans over tactics and philosophy. Hard-line conservatives, especially among the former freshmen "revolutionaries" of the last Congress, accuse Speaker Newt Gingrich of caving in on tax cuts; he recently suggested that they be handled in a bill separate from a balanced-budget agreement. Some Republicans, including conservative columnists, suggest it's time for a new Speaker.

"Nothing is happening up here," says a House GOP aide. "And when nothing is going on, we turn on each other."

The Republicans' fundamental problem, which will not change regardless of who is Speaker, is that the GOP's factions have very different priorities and agendas.

That's hardly surprising. In order to control Congress, especially the House of Representatives, a party needs a broad coalition of regional and ideological interests that is, by definition, hard to hold together. Doing so takes a strong personality on the order of a Franklin Delano Roosevelt or a 1995 Gingrich. But Speaker Gingrich, unpopular with the public and weakened by ethics scandals, is trying a lower-key, less-confrontational approach that appeals to moderates but leaves many conservatives cold. Moreover, the GOP leadership is doing much work this year in committee, a more time-consuming process than presenting leadership bills for floor votes, as it did in the 104th Congress. This process appears to be trying the patience of those who want action now.

Some suggest that the state of GOP disarray has reached that of the Democrats from the 1970s on, when even with a Democratic president in the White House - Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton - they were unable to agree on a coherent program.

"The ranks of the Republicans are looking more and more like the old-time Democrats.... It's not a pretty sight," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota in an ironic observation.

All Republicans agree in principle on the general goals of balancing the budget and cutting taxes. But that masks serious differences over which is more important:

* Deficit hawks, like Senate budget committee chairman Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of Arizona, stress balancing the budget. Their emphasis on tax cuts varies; many moderates side with the House Democrat "Blue Dogs," whose budget-balancing plan forgoes tax cuts until later. A balanced budget will bring economic growth, the hawks say, because the federal government won't be competing for investment funds.

* Supply-siders believe tax cuts are urgently needed to boost economic growth. Some, backed by former Rep. Jack Kemp, last fall's GOP vice presidential candidate, would jettison balancing the budget if it meant no tax cuts. Indeed, conservative columnist Robert Novak Monday derided the GOP's "sterile, dangerous insistence on deficit reduction."

* Other Republicans, such as House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich of Ohio, insist on both tax cuts and a balanced budget, but disagree on tactics. Some say the two must be part of a single package, while others endorse Gingrich's suggestion that the two can be handled in different bills.

Add to this social conservatives, allied with the Christian right; isolationists who want to disengage from the United Nations and American commitments abroad; and moderates who want fiscal restraint, favor abortion rights, and support an internationalist posture, and the potential for division increases.

In the House, Gingrich also struggles with a problem his Democratic predecessors Carl Albert, Thomas (Tip) O'Neill, and Thomas Foley never had: a razor-thin majority of just nine votes. In that environment, even a handful of GOP malcontents can play into the hands of the Democrats, as happened last week when 11 disgruntled conservatives vented their ire by voting against a procedural motion on a leadership bill to fund committees. The motion was defeated, sending GOP leaders back to the drawing board and forcing both houses to stay in session an extra day.

"We're learning that ... when you manage with a nine-vote majority, which is the smallest majority since Sam Rayburn became Speaker in 1955 ... that you have to work extra hard," Gingrich said as members headed home.

But the Speaker voiced a determination to get things moving. "We were reelected by people who want less spending in Washington, smaller bureaucracies, lower taxes, more take-home pay, and more economic growth. Those are the only kind of [budget] agreements we're going to bring up."

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