WASHINGTON -- Members of the House last night had their first chance ever to vote to limit their congressional careers -- and decided against it.
Facing opposition from Democrats and from some members of their own party, House Republican leaders suffered the first major defeat of their "Contract with America," falling far short of the 290 votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment to impose term limits.
After a daylong debate over four options, House members selected the least restrictive proposal: a plan to limit House members to six two-year terms and senators to two six-year terms -- without counting service before the measure's passage.
"I'm frankly surprised by our friends on the left," Speaker Newt Gingrich said at the close of debate in a reference to the Democrats. "I would have thought that after being defeated in the fall for the first time in 40 years, that paying some attention to the American people would have been useful. . . . Everywhere in America, people say they are sick of the professional politicians."
"We will go to the country in 1996 with a new version of the contract" that puts a vote on term limits at the top of the list, Mr. Gingrich promised.
"When we pick up enough additional seats . . . we will pass it."
The momentum for term limits came mostly from freshman and sophomore GOP members, who argued that service in Congress should not be a lifetime career.
"The arrogance of this place is showing tonight -- the arrogance of people who say, 'I am indispensable,' " said Rep. Bob Inglis, a two-term Republican from South Carolina, expressing the view of many junior members who have pushed for greater congressional turnover.
"You say voters can get rid of you, but you have a bigger war chest, and higher name identification than anyone else in your district," he added. "Voters want to get rid of you. That's what they're saying."
But some senior members of both parties argued that term limits would deny voters the chance to retain popular members and would deprive Congress of the knowledge and wisdom that veteran lawmakers have gained.
"I won't concede to the angry, pessimistic populism that drives this movement because it is just dead wrong," declared Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an 11-term Republican from Illinois who was the most passionate critic of the term-limits movement.
"New is always better?" he asked. "What's conservative about ++ that? Have we nothing to learn from the past? Tradition, history, institutional memory -- don't they count anymore? I can't be an accessory to the dumbing down of democracy."
Six of the eight Maryland legislators voted against the measure, including all four Democrats -- Benjamin L. Cardin, Albert R. Wynn, Steny H. Hoyer and Kweisi Mfume -- and Republicans Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Constance A. Morella. Voting for the measure were Republicans Wayne T. Gilchrest and Roscoe G. Bartlett.
Even the least restrictive proposal, which would have allowed current members to serve up to 19 more years because of the time required to get a constitutional amendment ratified by 38 states, was solidly opposed by a majority of Democrats and about one-third of the Republicans.
Rep. Barney Frank, an eight-term Democrat who led his party's opposition to term limits, argued that many of the supporters were "voting yes and praying no."
Contract's first defeat
The defeat was the first in the House for the Republican contract, which helped propel the GOP takeover of the House in last fall's election.
The House, so far, has passed eight of the 10 key "Contract with America" items -- with one more major proposal, a tax-cut package, to go before next week's deadline.
But last night's vote was only a minor marker along what has already been a nearly decade-long drive for congressional term limits.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule later this spring on the congressional term limits adopted by 22 states. Depending on the outcome of that ruling, legislation affirming the states' right to set their own limits may also come up for action in Congress later this year.
Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Florida Republican, likened the term limits movement to the crusade for women's suffrage, which she said, "Congress resisted while the states moved ahead."
More than half the current House members have been elected since 1990. But that fact has only fueled the drive for a constitutional limit on congressional terms because many of the new members support it.
Democratic freshmen as well as Republicans ran on platforms that appealed to voters because they fed a popular belief that long-time incumbents are serving only the lobbyists and special interest groups that can help them get re-elected.
"Sometimes the American people are wrong," said Rep. Pat Williams, a nine-term Democratic opponent of term limits. "This is one of those times."
To gloss over their loss last night, Republican advocates of term limits applauded themselves for bringing the issue to the House floor and sought to shift blame to the Democrats, who did not permit such a vote when they controlled the Congress.
"This vote should be considered a win for the people no matter what happens," said Rep. Van Hilleary, a freshman Republican from Tennessee. "We still made a huge down payment on the concept of term limits."
Mr. Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, pointed out that public opinion polls show strong public support for term limits.
"When the American public looks at one party, the Republicans, voting 84, 85 percent in favor, if the other party isn't at least up to 50-50, yes, we could declare which party is anti-term limits and it won't be the Republicans," Mr. Gingrich said.
But Democrats argued that many Republicans were hypocrites because they refused to support a more restrictive plan favored by some advocacy groups that would confine House members to just three two-year terms.
That alternative failed last night by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.
Instead, the alternative backed by most Republicans would repeal the state-imposed limits and replace them with a 12-year limit for House members that would not begin until after Congress has passed the amendment and two-thirds of the states have ratified it.