Forget the Fracases: GOP Rules on Hill

Republicans, with White House help, set agenda on budget, taxes, other key issues

On the surface, Republicans on Capitol Hill appear to have learned something the Democrats mastered long ago when running Congress: how to turn disunity into an art form.

Conservative Republicans always seem to be sniping with moderates. House members often disagree with their Senate colleagues. Hardly a week goes by that some pundit or politician isn't suggesting that House Speaker Newt Gingrich should take a trip back to his native Georgia, for good.

But underneath all the disarray, the Republicans on Capitol Hill are quietly controlling much of the agenda and shaping the direction of American government.

Indeed, as Senate and House conferees this week resume working out the differences in their tax and spending bills - with the White House participating behind the scenes - the debate is taking place almost entirely on Republican terms. Conferees are not arguing about whether to balance the budget, but over how to do it. They are not debating whether to cut taxes, but how to structure tax cuts. No one disputes the need for changes to save the Medicare program; the question is which changes are appropriate now. And the result of these and other bills will inevitably be a smaller federal government - and all are pet GOP issues.

The cumulative effect of all this, if Republicans can improve their public persona, is that the GOP could be well positioned heading into the 1998 midterm elections and presidential race in 2000. "In a strange way the Republicans won the war a long time ago, back when Bill Clinton decided he preferred being president to being a Democrat, that his reelection was more important than some party ideology," says Stephen Hess, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Since then, the Republicans have sort of fumbled and bumbled about how to claim victory."

Add last year's reforms of agricultural subsidies and welfare, and Republicans have accomplished much in the 1-1/2 years since their confrontation with President Clinton produced the now-infamous government shutdowns. They've done it, says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, by "picking up from the floor each of the components and repassing them" as separate bills. "Democrats ... are at best trying to temper the [GOP] momentum."

Many Democrats, of course, would challenge that analysis. Some say they are just as interested in balancing the budget and cutting taxes as Republicans are - and that they would do a better job of it. Moderate "New Democrats" say that the president is trying to build "center-out" coalitions, and that when the Republicans join him in the center, the two sides can accomplish much.

In all cases, the GOP has reached its goals, often in modified form, with significant Democratic help - particularly from the president. The cooperation is the result of a decision by GOP leaders in both houses to work with the president and like-minded Democrats, reversing their strategy during the previous Congress. Not only did the shutdowns teach GOP leaders the power of the president's veto and bully pulpit, but they also had to consider that while voters last fall reelected both a Republican Congress and a Democratic president, their majority fell from 21 votes to a slimmer margin of 11. The strategy paid off when Congress and the president reached the balanced-budget deal in May.

THE GOP accomplishments - which could still unravel if Congress and the president are unable to agree on the final form of bills - has largely been obscured by a series of spats and public-relations mistakes since the beginning of the year.

First came Speaker Newt Gingrich's problems with the House ethics committee. Then constitutional amendments to limit congressional terms and require a balanced budget failed to gain the required two-third majorities. The reversals led to grumbling in the ranks and periodic revolts from hard-line GOP sophomores, part of the so-called revolutionaries from the previous Congress.

The GOP's biggest stumble, however, was the attempt to attach policy provisions regarding the census and government funding to a disaster-relief bill. When the president vetoed the bill and held firm in insisting that Congress send him a "clean" bill, Republicans caved as they had in the shutdowns. This revived talk of abandoning Speaker Gingrich - talk that got a lot of attention but never had sufficient votes behind it. An article in the conservative Weekly Standard claimed the entire GOP leadership team was alienated from the Speaker. Conservative commentators branded leaders in both houses "Clintonized" wimps.

Moderate Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, a Gingrich defender, says the Speaker is a victim of his own leadership style, which often earns him the blame for others' mistakes.

Hoping to build on GOP successes, Gingrich is now planning for future elections. In an interview with an Atlanta newspaper, he floated an agenda that included reducing teen pregnancy, stepping up the war on drugs, reforming public education, abolishing estate and capital-gains taxes, and boosting small businesses.

"Republicans could well be in power in Congress for a very long time," unless the economy goes sour, Mr. Hess says. But he adds, "Republicans as a majority party are going to be contentious.... There will always be a fight about the heart and soul of the Republican party. That's as it should be."

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