House Republicans go for prime time

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- In a neat bit of late 20th-century symbolism, House Speaker Newt Gingrich plans to take to the national airwaves Friday.

His prime-time speech, marking the end of Congress' first hundred days, is in line with everything the new Republican majority is doing. It's bold. It's calculated. And it aspires to be historic.

Since the dawn of the television age, the nationally broadcast address has been a presidential privilege. The "hundred days" itself has always referred to the start of an energetic new presidency, not a Congress.

By borrowing those images, Mr. Gingrich and his Republican allies are trying to build on what they have already accomplished -- a remarkable shift in national agenda-setting from the White House to the House of Representatives.

Over the past three months, under Mr. Gingrich's tightly controlled leadership, House Republicans -- not President Clinton -- have taken the lead. In a frenetic blur of legislative activity, they've profoundly changed the way Congress -- and, conceivably, America -- works.

"No doubt about it. It is absolutely historic," said Charles O. Jones, a University of Wisconsin political scientist. "There is no period in which you have had so much initiated by one of the legislative bodies. It's stunning. . . . If the president had done as much in his first hundred days in 1993, we'd be saying, 'Holy moly.' "

And it's only the beginning. Coming next: radical surgery on the guts of the federal budget, the New Deal and Great Society programs created over the past half-century or more.

Those spending cuts are essential to the Republicans' over-arching goal of sharply reducing the power of the national ,, government and its influence over the everyday lives of Americans.

By the time Congress heads home for its Easter recess next weekend, House Republicans will have delivered on their promise to bring to a floor vote all the pieces of the conservative platform they signed last fall, the extremely ambitious "Contract with America."

They will have passed about 90 percent of the "contract," which is, by nearly all accounts, the most conservative agenda to hit Washington since the 1920s.

Among the measures already approved by the House: the most sweeping reform of the welfare system in 60 years; the line-item veto, a potentially historic grant of budget authority from Congress to the president; major changes in the legal system; new limits on the federal government's ability to regulate businesses and individuals; and a revolution in the internal operations of the House itself.

The Republican leadership, using computerized flow charts adapted from the construction industry, has directed the action from the speaker's office, vastly diminishing the traditional authority of committee chairmen. To make it tougher for new power centers to form, a three-term limit has been put on committee chairmen and House leaders, including the speaker.

"The old fiefdoms are broken up," proclaims Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, the No. 2 figure in the House Republican hierarchy.

Strong party unity

One key to the GOP's early success has been an unusually high degree of party unity, especially among the freshmen and sophomores who hold a majority of the Republican seats.

Still strangers to one another, and to the public, still scrambling to put their office staffs together and learn their way around the Capitol, they have bound themselves to the spirit of the contract in ways that few would have predicted.

"They really, firmly believe in it, and much more so in the post-election period than the pre-election period," says James Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor who is interviewing 60 House members for a book on the new Congress.

"A lot of members didn't take it seriously when they signed it. They never expected to be in the majority in the first place."

Now they're in charge and in demand.

The other day, a dozen reporters surrounded Rep. James C. Greenwood after the second-term Pennsylvania Republican emerged from a strategy session on the party's tax-cut proposal.

When all the questions had been answered, a brave newsman asked one more, the one that was on all his colleagues' minds: "Uh, sir, could you tell us your name?"

Enormous power

In a break with tradition, the new young stars of the Hill, many of them conservative outsiders elected on a pledge to shake up Washington, find themselves holding enormous power.

Rep. David M. McIntosh, a 36-year-old freshman from Indiana, came to Congress hoping for a seat on the Commerce Committee so he could work on speeding the approval process for new pharmaceuticals.

Instead, he was made a subcommittee chairman -- something that would have been unthinkable for a freshman during the decades of Democratic control -- and was put in charge of reforming regulatory policy for the entire government.

Says Mr. Gingrich, with what some regard as characteristic overstatement: "This is the most successful effort to change this city since the beginning of the New Deal."

During that period in 1933, which gave the phrase "hundred days" to history, more than a dozen major new laws were enacted and presidential orders signed, greatly expanding the government's control over the economy.

During the first hundred days of this year, only two initiatives have reached Mr. Clinton's desk and been signed into law, both largely symbolic. One would apply the laws of the land to Congress; the other would make it harder for Congress to impose regulations on state and local governments without providing the money to carry out those mandates.

Most of the measures passed by the hyperactive House are still in the legislative pipeline, now crammed to overflowing in the Senate, which is expected to modify -- but still approve -- most of the House agenda.

Less certain is Mr. Clinton's response; he has vowed to veto anything he regards as extreme.

House Republicans, meanwhile, are looking ahead. They acknowledge that, for all their accomplishments, the first hundred days were merely the overture.

Next month, the curtain goes up on the year's most important drama: the effort to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget by 2002.

What's at stake is nothing less than the ultimate goal of the Republican revolution: radically shrinking the federal government and reducing its reach, in the process reversing the flow of power to Washington.

Changing the role of government, Republicans like Mr. Gingrich believe, is their key to becoming America's governing party for a generation or more. That is why they say they're prepared to risk everything to put the government on a path toward a balanced budget in seven years.

It won't be easy. Rep. John R. Kasich, the House Budget 'D Committee chairman, in what many would consider a wildly optimistic estimate, figures there's a 50-50 chance that Congress will balance the budget.

Gordian knot

"If we are able to do that, then I think the whole political constellation of the country is turned upside down," says Tony Blankley, the speaker's press secretary. "We will have cut the Gordian knot. The budget battle between May and November is likely to be a very big story, told with enough repetition that the public will come to a new judgment about the two political parties."

Republicans realize that most Americans haven't made up their minds about the direction the new majority is taking. House leaders are frustrated that their message doesn't seem to be getting through.

Their successes, Republicans are convinced, get less attention than their failures -- the defeat of term limits in the House, the Senate's refusal (by one vote) to approve a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, the relatively minor squabbles among Republicans whose unity has been nothing short of remarkable.

"It is very possible that we have been so busy getting done what we're getting done that we haven't taken enough time out to crow to the world about what fine fellows we are," says Mr. Armey, the House Republican leader. "We're not doing as well as we should" communicating.

Selling budget cuts

Mr. Gingrich's speech Friday is the first part of an elaborate public relations strategy to sell the Republicans' budget cuts to the country.

One hurdle Republicans must overcome is the negative image -- fed by Democratic attacks in the debate over school lunches and welfare reform -- of the GOP as heartless, more concerned with offering tax breaks to the rich than helping children and the poor.

In the aftermath of those early budget skirmishes, polls indicate that independent swing voters -- especially women -- have reservations about the Republicans' policies.

Many Republicans, particularly in the Senate, believe the party squandered political capital over the relatively modest cuts proposed in the school lunch program.

And there are fears that the Republicans' image will be damaged again when they bring their conservative social agenda to the House floor this summer -- measures to permit prayer in public schools, restrict abortion and repeal the ban on assault weapons.

Finally, there's the sheer magnitude of the budget-balancing task. Even among reform-minded Republicans, politics as usual has already interfered with efforts to cut such popular programs as food stamps, veterans hospitals, low-income heating aid for the poor and Amtrak.

That is before Republican leaders touch the politically volatile Medicare program, targeted for more than $100 billion in budget savings that could affect millions of older Americans. Many in Washington expect that fight to dwarf the recent skirmish over school lunches.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," GOP Budget Chairman Kasich said recently, looking ahead to the next phase of the Republican revolution, in a remark that could be taken in more than one way.

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