The Republicans Count Chickens: Too Soon?


Washington -- Leaders of the Republican minority in the House of Representatives are secretly drawing up plans to change the rules of that distinguished body.

They would like to eliminate a few committees, particularly the Energy and Commerce Committee -- now chaired by Rep. John Dingell of Michigan -- which for some reason has to pass on 40 percent of all legislation before the House. More important, at least to members, is the distribution of staff among the two parties. Under the rules written by Democrats, who have controlled the body for more than 40 years, the majority gets three staffers for every one allotted to the minority.

For years the Republicans, losers every time in more than 20 elections, have argued that the ratio should have been just 2-to-1. But now, with Republicans pinching each other to see if it's really true that they might win a majority of House seats in the November 8 midterm elections, many members want to forget about such reforms.

In fact, many Republicans have told the man who will be their leader next year, Assistant Minority Leader Newt Gingrich, that they would prefer cutting the total number of staff, but maintaining the 3-to-1 ratio -- in effect, doubling current Republican staff but cutting Democrats to even lower numbers of staff than the ones Republicans have been claiming are grossly unfair.

All that may be wishful thinking. The Democrats, after all, control the current House -- 258 Democrats to 176 Republicans. Many older Republicans have settled into permanent minority mentality, but, says Ed Gillespie, the spokesman for the House Republican Conference: "We've moved beyond wishing and hoping for a majority someday to planning for one."

It's possible. Midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the government itself (or the man who supposedly controls it, the president), and Democrats control both the Congress and the White House. President Clinton looks to be both weak and unpopular eight weeks before that referendum.

The Republicans will certainly gain seats in both the Senate and House, and it is not unreasonable to think they might just take one or both houses -- if for no other reason than most of the seats up for grabs are now held by Democrats. So the majority has to win just to stay even.

Of the 35 contested Senate seats, 22 are held by Democrats and nine of those look to be vulnerable. All 435 of the House seats are up, of course, and the Democrats have to win 258 to maintain their current majority.

As Congress returns to work from recess -- and whatever else is true of them, members do work like miners -- pundit and politician predictions here are that from four to seven Senate seats and from 20 to 40 House seats will shift from Democrat to Republican. Forty-two is the magic number that would give the Republicans 218 House seats, giving them the majority to change the rules they do not like as a minority.

The sense of impending Republican triumph is so widespread in Washington that some Democrats -- fearing the party is about to be punished for President Clinton's perceived character problems and muddled foreign policy -- are now saying the president will benefit from defeat because it will allow him to govern from a bipartisan center and blame a Republican Congress for whatever fiascoes punctuate the next two years.

Fiascoes there will be, but in this business neither side can be sure of their impact. So far, Clinton seems to get no credit for the improving U.S. economy. If one reads past poll results, a president in his situation usually has approval ratings near 60 percent. But Clinton is stuck at 40 percent. In Texas, where the economy is booming because of the North American Free Trade Agreement he sold to Congress and country, Clinton's approval rating in political polls is below 20 percent.

Go figure. The conventional wisdom here is that the 20 points between ratings of 40 and 60 is a "character gap." The theory is that people just don't trust the man or they disapprove of what they know or hear about how he lived his life before coming to the White House.

But perhaps the low ratings only mean that voters do not know that Mr. Clinton has, in fact, been a relatively effective president. He may look quite a bit different as this campaign makes voting Americans think a bit more about what has been going on here. Or, maybe the old draft dodger will become a war hero if he orders the invasion of Haiti -- an October non-surprise.

We shall see. The Republicans thinking up new congressional rules should take it easy for a while.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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