Infighting among House Republicans has resulted in a virtual stalemate on a host of legislative issues, forcing Speaker Newt Gingrich and his leadership team to scramble to hold together their party's various factions.
It's a situation House Democrats may understand all too well. A House majority is usually a coalition of diverse regional and ideological interests that carries within itself the seeds of discord. Complicating the Speaker's life is a host of factors beyond his control: lingering dissatisfaction with the leadership team; a possibly premature race to succeed him; the GOP's razor-thin majority; and the Democrat at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, with his veto power.
As Gingrich and Co. try to move beyond the mostly enacted Contract With America and balanced-budget victory, they are finding it tough to patch over the factional fault lines. The bottom line is that it looks increasingly likely few major bills - other than the annual budget and spending bills - will make it to President Clinton's desk this year.
For starters, GOP members have leapt into a race for Gingrich's job even before it's clear he is leaving. Belief in Washington is widespread that a Gingrich presidential bid is on the horizon.
Rep. Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman, has announced that if and when Gingrich leaves, he would run for Speaker, challenging majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas.
Mr. Livingston taps a wellspring of discontent among some GOP members over Representative Armey's performance and that of majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas. The dissatisfaction is fueled by the two men's perceived roles in last year's clumsy plot to bring down Gingrich.
Gingrich says he'll run for Speaker again next year and serve until 2003 - the full time he could hold the office under GOP term-limit rules. But Livingston is undeterred. "I personally believe that Newt Gingrich has wanted to run for president, is planning to run for president, and will run for president," he says, pointing out that 2000 would be Gingrich's best shot at the job. He claims about 80 of the 114 votes he would need for election.
Armey, meanwhile, claims he's just concentrating on being a good majority leader.
Then there's the flap over a bill to reorganize the State Department and foreign-affairs agencies. GOP leaders have tried for weeks to cobble together enough votes to send the measure on to Mr. Clinton. Conservative Republicans balk at a provision to pay overdue bills to the United Nations. Moderate Republicans and most Democrats refuse to vote for anti-abortion provisions. GOP leaders were set to try again for a floor vote late yesterday or today.
The annual spring supplemental spending bill has hit a similar roadblock. Clinton wants funding for disaster assistance, military operations in Bosnia and the Gulf, and the International Monetary Fund. The GOP leadership has split that into two bills. They want to protect the disaster and defense measures, while conservatives try to attach anti-abortion language to the IMF provisions, creating another stalemate.
Meanwhile, an internal fight has broken out over spending cuts to offset the emergency and military funding. On top of that, House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich (R) of Ohio, has blasted the highway and mass-transit bill as budget-busting and is organizing opposition.
Several forces are fueling the gridlock, observers say. One is ideological: While GOP moderates and conservatives generally agree on limiting spending and the size of the federal government, they concur on little else.
Then there's the GOP's tiny majority. "It reflects the tightrope the leadership must walk on virtually every bill," says Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "A few members can leave the reservation and upset the whole strategy."
Stephen Hess of the centrist Brookings Institution points to a distinct lessening of congressional collegiality. "There is so little party control any more," he says. "Over time it's each person for themselves."
Mr. Wittmann says the leadership will have trouble moving bills until it controls at least 20 more seats. Mr. Hess thinks Republicans' problems go deeper: "They get out of the box if in the year 2000 they elect a Republican president. Then presumably there's somebody who can create an agenda that they can grouse about but reluctantly get behind."