GOP on defensive in fall political opener

Lawmakers, back from recess, brace for duel with Clinton over taxing

Republicans in Congress chalked up a major victory against President Clinton this summer - in softball, that is. GOP hitters led by House Speaker Dennis Hastert recently trounced teams fielded by both congressional Democrats and the White House.

But as the House and Senate reconvene today, the fall political season is not expected to yield many grand slams for the Republicans who run Congress. After five years of holding the majority, they are in the defensive position, once again, of trying to avoid being outmaneuvered by the president.

In this year's duel, Republicans face the prospect of either bowing to Mr. Clinton's demands to spend more or being blamed for a repeat of the 1995-96 government shutdown. On taxes, the president has promised to veto the GOP's prized $792 billion tax-cut bill. Moreover, hot debate over taxing and spending is likely to prevent Congress from passing much other major legislation, leaving Republicans again vulnerable to the "do-nothing" label.

"The question is, how do the Republicans leave town [for the next recess] with dignity?" says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation here. "What is the exit fee?"

Since 1994, when GOP firebrand Newt Gingrich led Republicans to take over Congress, internal weaknesses have beset the party. Divisions between conservative newcomers, old-style veterans, and party moderates have intensified. A steadily shrinking majority has made passing important legislation more arduous. And leadership instability has left congressional Republicans without a strong personality to rally them.

By contrast, Democrats are relatively united despite scandal and impeachment, as their minority status helps to hold liberals and conservatives together.

Clinton, for his part, has often carved out the centrist position on issues, co-opting popular Republican initiatives and using his veto authority to strike down ones he opposes. Public opinion, as measured in recent polls, currently favors Democratic positions in several major areas, from saving Social Security and paying down the national debt to gun control and health-care reform.

This fall, these political dynamics are expected to complicate the Republicans' strategy in the annual push-and-pull over setting priorities for the next federal budget.

Republicans want to hold spending down so they can afford to give taxpayers the first installment of a $792 billion tax cut - without breaking their pledge to safeguard the Social Security surplus for future generations. The administration, meanwhile, wants to increase spending, offsetting it with various new taxes and user fees, while also preserving the retirement system surplus.

Exacerbating the tension are tight budget caps agreed on in 1997, which would reduce spending next year by several billion

dollars below this year's levels. Both sides want to avoid blame for breaking the caps, and have tried to circumvent them by approving high levels of "emergency" spending for the Kosovo conflict, farmers, and disasters. Still, many analysts say that staying within the caps is unrealistic.

The deadline for Congress to pass, and the president to sign, the 13 annual spending bills is Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins. Clinton has so far signed only one spending bill and is prepared to veto any others that he believes inadequately fund government programs.

Republicans must ultimately accept his spending requests to avoid another government shutdown, which hurt the GOP image four years ago. A temporary alternative would be to pass a continuing resolution, which would fund the government at this year's levels.

"If history is a prologue to the future, they [Republicans] will capitulate on the spending demands," says Mr. Wittmann, referring to Congress's last-minute passage in 1998 of a huge catch-all spending bill.

STILL, such a conclusion this year could again alienate GOP fiscal conservatives and threaten the fragile Republican majority.

In response, Republicans seek to gain all the political mileage they can from the tax-cut issue, which they see as a trump card. GOP leaders plan a pep rally next week to call on Clinton to sign the bill, which is expected to arrive at the White House mid-month.

The president, though, has just as energetically denounced the bill, stating earlier this week that the tax-relief plan would take money from vital programs ranging from school construction to scientific research.

Republicans apparently are not agreed on how to respond to a presidential veto of the tax bill. Some moderates advocate compromise on a bill stripped of special-interest tax breaks, while conservatives seek to do nothing and retain taxes as an issue for the 2000 campaign.

Congress-watchers predict a similar stalemate on other issues this fall, including health-care reform, campaign finance, and gun control. But some lawmakers hold out hope for moderation among conservative Republicans that could pave the way for deals with the White House. "There is a moderating happening on Capitol Hill with Republicans," says Rep. Constance Morella (R) of Maryland. "You have members who are more mellowed than when they came in in 1994."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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