A SAD SPECTACLE," that's what West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd called the scene on the Senate floor a week ago. Well, it certainly was a spectacle. The more than 100 hours of debate on the constitutional amendment to balance the budget had finally come to an end, the appointed hour for the roll call had arrived. But no yeas and nays were forthcoming. Instead, Republicans huddled around a Democratic holdout trying to win the 67th vote for passage of the amendment. Democrats sat joking on their side of the aisle, seemingly unconcerned about the heated deliberations a few feet away. They see a tremendous political advantage in forcing the Republicans to come up with the spending cuts necessary to actually do the deed -- to erase the federal red ink by 2002.
Already the Republicans are beginning to feel the heat of public outrage over some of their proposals as they struggle in their newfound majority with the question: How far do they reach without overreaching? How far do they push ideology before they turn off an essentially non-ideological electorate? They might have already gotten the answer to that question, though they probably don't yet realize it. The answer could be two simple words: school lunches.
So far the Republicans have lost the rhetorical argument on this very popular program. (In a Gallup/USA Today/CNN poll released last week, 69 percent said it is more important to preserve the school lunch program than to cut it to reduce the deficit.) Republicans insist that they have actually improved school feeding programs, even though they reduced total funding for them, by including them in block grants that the states can administer more effectively than the bureaucrats in Washington. But by voting to end the federal program that provides kids with breakfast and lunch at school for free or at reduced prices, they gave the Democrats a wonderful opening. "There go those meanie Republicans," they shriek, "taking food out of the mouths of children." The president took it a step further, saying Republicans are ready to "make war on the kids of the country to make room for a capital gains tax cut" for the wealthy.
That's exactly the image old-time Republicans fear most -- that they take from the average guy, or even worse, the average kid, to give to the rich. But they're in danger of resurrecting that bogeyman. Already in the Gallup poll those who say the Republican budget cuts go too far has risen from 19 percent at the end of December to 39 percent at the end of February. And the serious business has just gotten under way.
It's not just budget cuts that could put Republicans in political peril. Big bills labelled regulatory relief and legal reform could also trip them up if they're not careful. Americans might think a lot of federal regulation is foolish, and horrible examples abound, but voters have made it clear in polls and in polling places that they want the government to protect their health and safety. This week the House passed a bill that would fundamentally change the way regulators enforce health, safety and environmental laws. It tells federal agencies to pay primary attention to the cost of the rule, rather than strict health standards.
Can you imagine the outcry the first time someone gets contaminated by bad food as a result of looser regulations? Two weeks ago, we were reminded of the problems with unsafe food when one of the children who survived the Jack-in-the-Box poisoning (three died) won a settlement of $15 million. She suffered brain damage and every organ system in her body had been affected.
But at least she got some money. If the Republicans pass their "Common Sense Legal Reforms" act, lawsuits would be harder to file and there would be limits on the amount a victim could collect. Again, this is an area where Americans express outrage at the size of what they see as silly settlements, but that doesn't mean that people are ready to abandon all avenues of recourse if they're done in by a negligent or corrupt business practice.
So the signs are up: Republicans Beware. Voters might be fed up with Washington but they still want kids to get fed at school, they want that food to be safe and they want to be able to sue somebody if it isn't. Any party or politician that gets in the way of those goals is asking for trouble.
Cokie Roberts is a commentator for ABC News. Steven V. Roberts is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report.