Candidates now torn over promises to limit terms

Five years ago, George Nethercutt was a giant-slayer, unseating none other than the Democratic House Speaker, Tom Foley.

A key issue in Mr. Nethercutt's victory - and in the GOP's Contract With America - was term limits. Speaker Foley had been in Congress way too long, Nethercutt argued, promising that if he won, he'd limit his tenure to three terms, or six years.

Now the poster boy of term limits is hard up against that promise: Nethercutt must decide soon if he'll run again. And, despite his pledge, the popular Washington Republican is considering going for a fourth term.

Six other self-term-limited Republicans have already decided to keep their pledges. Several others, like Nethercutt, are waffling.

It's an explosive situation that mixes bare-knuckle politics with high-minded questions of political promise-keeping. Especially after the year of Monica Lewinsky, candidate morality could loom large in the November 2000 elections.

"I'd like to see [Nethercutt] run again, because he adds a lot of balance in the House and in this conference. He's a smart, smart guy," says Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, chairman of the Republican campaign committee in charge of maintaining and building on the GOP's whisker-thin majority in the House.

But there are risks, Representative Davis acknowledged at a Monitor breakfast. The cash-rich interest group United States Term Limits is already pummeling Nethercutt with TV ads in his district, complete with clips of infamous untruths uttered by Presidents Nixon, Bush, and Clinton. "All of a sudden, that's a race that you don't know how it's going to play down the road," says Davis.

Another respected House Republican, Rep. Tillie Fowler of Florida, the top woman in the GOP leadership, is also thinking of running again, despite a four-term pledge she took in 1992.

The Republicans' challenge goes beyond just those members who may violate their term-limit pledges. The GOP also faces some uncomfortable vacancies by members who are honoring their self-imposed limits, namely Reps. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jack Metcalf of Washington, both from districts that could swing Democratic.

In the 2000 elections, control of Congress hangs in the balance. Currently, Republicans control 222 seats, the Democrats have 211, one is held by an independent, and one is vacant but expected to stay Republican. With the GOP margin of control just six seats, every Republican retirement represents a level of uncertainty for that seat. And with one exception, all the self-term-limited members are Republicans.

The only Democrat facing a term-limit pledge is Rep. Marty Meehan of Massachusetts, who's also wavering. Congressman Meehan, a champion of political reform, has put himself in a no-win situation. If he retires, he can't push from the inside anymore for campaign-finance reform. But if he runs again, he compromises his image as a crusader for morality in politics.

On the GOP side, some party regulars are questioning the wisdom of self-imposed limits that mainly hurt Republicans.

"It would be ironic if those who strove for fidelity ended up being responsible for throwing Congress back to the professional despoilers," conservative commentator William Buckley Jr. recently wrote.

But US Term Limits, which plans to spend $20 million during this election cycle, is rolling up its sleeves to fight all promise-breakers - and to lobby candidates to sign term-limit pledges.

When asked, a large majority of voters say they support term limits, but it's not a high-priority issue. And the Republican Party isn't pushing for term-limits legislation anymore.

Back in Spokane, Wash., a member of the Republican Party State Committee has organized a petition drive to urge Nethercutt to run again. Nethercutt says he's waiting to hear from his voters before he decides.

Congressional analysts say there's a persuasive argument that term-limited members like Nethercutt can make for why they should stay in Congress longer than they had planned. "He can be honest and say, 'Hey, I was wrong, six years is short. I'm just learning how to do things for you folks,' " says Gary Jacobson, a Congress-watcher at the University of California at San Diego.

Still, Mr. Jacobson adds, going back on a pledge could be problematic: "When you demagogue an issue, sometimes it comes back to bite you."

The term-limits forces argue that when people serve too long in Congress - as few as six years - they get sucked into their own sense of power and lose sight of the needs of their constituents. Perks of incumbency, such as media access and mailing privileges, make it difficult to unseat a sitting member, they say.

But many promise-breakers go on to win reelection. Just ask Rep. Scott McInnis (R) of Colorado. When he won his first term in Congress in 1992, he promised to serve only three terms. Last November, he ran anyway and won handily.

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