For GOP, disorder in the House

Weak leadership and unruly factions leave Republicans struggling to put

When Congress reconvenes next week, the ruling Republicans face a tall order: Get their act together, or watch the House descend into anarchy for the next year and a half.

All spring, the GOP tried to overcome its image as the party of impeachment. The Republicans carved out an aggressive agenda of tax cuts and saving Social Security. But the 106th Congress has quickly deteriorated into a battleground for internecine Republican warfare and open recriminations.

By the end of last week, the House had adjourned early and in disarray, failing to pass any of the bills Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois had hoped to complete before the Memorial Day recess.

The Republicans' problems are many. They are behaving like a typical majority party, splitting into factions. But their majority is one of the narrowest ever in Congress - just a five-seat margin - and any faction can weigh in with inordinate power to stop legislation.

On top of this, the new GOP House leadership is divided and weak. As a result, the Democrats, whose issues top the national agenda, are taking advantage of their adversaries' troubles.

"Right now there's no power source. Consequently, you have chaos and anarchy," says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation here. "The main challenge right now for Speaker Hastert is to bring order out of chaos."

If ineffective Congresses were ranked on an "all-time list," like home-run hitters in baseball are, "this one would be way up there on the list," says political analyst Stu Rothenberg.

Republicans say it's too soon to start talking about possible coup attempts to replace the new Speaker, who was chosen precisely because of his low-key and conciliatory style - in contrast to that of his predecessor, the firebrand Newt Gingrich.

But if Hastert doesn't restore order after the recess, "he will face a potential challenge," says Mr. Wittmann. "Right now, this is like a kindergarten playground without the adult supervision."

What he needs to do, say Republicans, is work out an arrangement with GOP conservatives and moderates over how the House will proceed. Then he can deal with the Democrats.

Even if Republicans have already seriously scaled back their hopes for the next year and a half, there is a minimum agenda they hope to accomplish: finishing all 13 spending bills on time and approving some modest tax cuts.

MODEST achievements would not be a bad thing, say congressional observers. After the tumultuous Gingrich years, many Republicans are happy to settle for a period of quiet competence.

To be sure, the Republicans have logged some accomplishments this year. They passed - and President Clinton signed - a bill giving states more flexibility on federal education rules. Both chambers approved a bill calling on Mr. Clinton to deploy a missile-defense program. Congress also approved a budget resolution on time, an improvement over last year's stalemate.

But for the most part, the national agenda this spring has been dominated by traditional Democratic issues - education, health care, minimum wage, and gun control. GOP leaders now concede that a higher minimum wage is inevitable.

Seventeen months before the 2000 elections, in which control of the White House, the House, and the Senate hangs in the balance, lawmakers in both parties are beginning to write off this Congress and play for advantage on election issues.

"I really believe that both parties sort of want to do nothing and get to the next election," Rep. Marty Meehan (D) of Massachusetts told reporters at a Monitor breakfast meeting last week. "Democrats are in a better position on most issues, and most Democrats want get to the election as soon as we can."

For Republicans, going into the next election with a hydra-headed party leadership could be risky. At least under Gingrich, it was clear who led the House. Under Hastert, power is diffuse.

Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, bluntly asserts that the No. 3 leader in the House, Republican whip Tom DeLay of Texas, is "the most powerful person in Congress." Mr. DeLay, a conservative, has long been at odds with Mr. Shays and other moderates over issues such as campaign finance reform.

For Shays, the time has come for his party to band together. "This Republican Party has to decide ... whether it wants to be the party of Tom DeLay or a party that I think I represent," he said over breakfast.

GOP voters of Shays's district will have an opportunity next year to decide which kind of Republican they want on the 2000 ballot. On the day last week that Shays bucked his party's leadership and sided with Democrats on campaign finance reform, Shays drew a challenger in the primary race for his seat. At the breakfast, he said it was "very possible" he could lose in a primary.

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