Mutiny Could Weaken GOP in Budget Battle

Gingrich is upbeat about negotiations, despite last week's attempted overthrow

Republicans in the House of Representatives are still feeling the aftershocks of the coup scheme that rocked their leadership last week.

What they lost in the flurry of allegations about who did or did not plot to bring down House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia was that ethereal but most crucial ingredient to any successful organization: mutual trust.

The divisions will not be easily mended. Since no one is owning up to anything, Mr. Gingrich must now suspect one or all of his lieutenants of working against him.

Rank-and-file Republican House members, who generally prefer Gingrich as Speaker to the alternatives, are bewildered and upset, both at a small group of conservative rebels and at the leaders they suspect of plotting with the renegades against the Speaker.

And the rebels, angry with the moderate stances of Gingrich to begin with, feel betrayed once again. They say they are getting the blame for a plot they claim Gingrich's lieutenants were fully a part of - a charge the leaders vehemently deny. The rebels vow to continue their efforts - which have been going on for months - to bring Gingrich down.

In this atmosphere, House Republicans are attempting to negotiate with the Senate and President Clinton over tax and spending bills as part of the balanced-budget deal. The GOP infighting risks slowing down or even derailing the process: With the GOP enjoying a slender 11-vote majority in the House, the 20 or so rebels could bring down any agreement with the president and the Senate if they believe it strays too far from their conservative goals.

If the rebels bolt ...

The problem is compounded for House leaders because unlike the Senate bills, which passed with strong bipartisan majorities, the House versions passed with virtually no Democratic support. Thus if Republican rebels bolted, the leadership would be forced to seek votes on the other side of the aisle. If the White House has signed off on the bill, however, many House Democrats could well support it, making the leadership's job easier.

Despite the week's events, Gingrich was upbeat about the tax and budget negotiations, predicting the bills could be ready for votes by the end of this week. But the conferees face some major hurdles:

* The president wants to make the per-child tax credit refundable to low-income people who pay no income tax; Republicans oppose that.

* The House wants capital-gains tax cuts to take account of inflation; the Senate bill contains no such provision and the president says it would explode the deficit.

* The Senate wants to gradually raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67, charge wealthier recipients higher premiums, and impose a $5-per-visit fee on home health-care visits. The president has not acquiesced and the House will not go along unless he does.

* Negotiators are far apart on whether to accept the Senate's 20-cents-a-pack cigarette tax to fund expanded health care for children.

Clinton stronger now?

The question now is whether the House GOP dogfight will strengthen Mr. Clinton's negotiating hand. Senate majority leader Trent Lott said Friday he saw no change in the Speaker's focus: "He seems to be very comfortable and committed to the work we have before us." And most of the GOP negotiators were not involved in the turmoil.

The revolt was apparently sparked when House majority whip Rep. Tom DeLay (R) of Texas met with the rebels, he says, to gauge the depth of their discontent with Gingrich. The rebels claim that Mr. DeLay committed himself and the other leaders to an effort to remove Gingrich from the speakership. Some reports say the plan was to replace Gingrich with Rep. Bill Paxon (R) of New York, while DeLay and majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas ran things behind the scenes.

Representative Armey protests that he quashed the rebel revolt when he learned of it. But rebels who freely admit their involvement insist that the GOP leadership was indeed involved in the plot.

The week ended with Representative Paxon resigning as chairman of the leadership, an appointed position, still protesting that "this whole incident has been grossly misconstrued." Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the GOP conference chairman, said he expected no other resignations. "The relationship between myself and the Speaker is as good as it has ever been at any time," Armey said Friday.

In the short term, the whole episode may strengthen Gingrich. Many rank-and-file GOP House members made it clear that they would not tolerate attempts to dump the Speaker.

But some observers speculate that after Congress finishes work on the tax-cut and budget legislation, there could be a Republican leadership reshuffle. Delay issued a statement saying he would remain in his post, but some see him as occupying the most precarious position in the current leadership.

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