WASHINGTON -- The enormous shift in power in Washington over the past year was punctuated by the spectacle last Friday of House Democrats sitting in the rain on the Capitol lawn holding a mock hearing on Republican Medicare proposals.
A year ago today, the Republicans were the outsiders. On that day, though, from the steps of the Capitol, they unveiled their "Contract with America," the campaign document that went on to serve as a governing blueprint following their historic 1994 election victory.
The anniversary finds the party on the verge of remarkable success. As it enters the final, crucial phase of legislative combat, the new GOP majority is moving with uncommon unity and discipline, and is likely to deliver on most of the contract proposals for smaller less, intrusive government.
What's more, the Republicans have seized the moment to undertake a dramatic mission to balance the budget and broadly reshape federal policy -- on issues ranging from space research to environmental protection to automobile speed limits.
"We're on the verge of doing exactly what we said we would do -- balance the budget, cut taxes, reform welfare and save Medicare," said Rep. John R. Kasich, an Ohio Republican who heads the House Budget Committee. "We're past the point of no return."
Among the huge class of GOP House freshman, who give this movement much force and verve, there is frustration because the Senate has delayed and watered-down some proposals in the contract.
"We don't want a bill just for the sake of having a bill, we want real change," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican freshman from Baltimore County. "But we all know that to achieve the fundamental reforms that all of us want is going to take more than eight months."
An interim score card on the Republicans' contract isn't very impressive because so many of the items are still awaiting Senate action, and the Senate might not complete its work until the end of the year. Furthermore, most of the items seem to have no chance of being approved as originally passed by the House.
On a number of key votes, however, the senators -- including many Democrats -- have demonstrated they are sympathetic with the House goals, if not all the provisions of individual bills.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich is standing by his original prediction that 60 percent to 70 percent of the contract items will become law.
Even so, the next three months promise to sorely test GOP resolve.
The contract promised a House vote -- not passage -- during the first 100 days of the new term on 10 legislative proposals on which there was general consensus in the party.
But the document proved to be much more: the catalyst for a crusade to balance the budget within seven years by wringing out nearly $1 trillion in savings, mostly from politically sensitive social programs.
Democrats are doing their best to sound alarms.
"By any measure of extremism, this is off the scale," Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, said of spending bills that cut deeply into education, environmental and veterans programs.
At the heart of this fight is the massive GOP redesign of Medicare to produce one-fourth of the total savings required.
As the budget debate approaches its climax in mid-November, Republicans will probably be pounded daily with Democratic charges that they are raising costs and cutting benefits for Medicare beneficiaries to meet their contract goal of a tax cut.
"I don't know how well this is going to serve their party," Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said of the Republican agenda. "We don't have any experience with politicians who have cut back and reformed programs being rewarded by voters."
Polls already suggest that the honeymoon for the first Republican-led Congress in four decades may be over. Favorable ratings scored last spring have slipped into the unfavorable category, where Congress usually places.
"This is a very radical approach, a big gamble; they are going for the big banana," said Rep. Vic Fazio of California, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. "I think sooner or later, it will backfire on them. But I don't know how long it will take. Maybe not until after the next election."
Even as the most explosive phase of the budget debate approaches, there is a sense of inevitability among lawmakers of both parties that the Republicans will succeed in getting their program adopted largely intact.
"We know this is the toughest part, but we've got the finish line in sight," said Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who heads the Senate Republican Caucus.
All but one of the original contract items -- a constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms -- have won approval in the House. Several contract proposals have been passed in the Senate -- including welfare reform, some defense measures, anti-crime proposals and legal reforms. The tax-related provisions are scheduled to be included in the final budget measure.
Three contract bills -- reducing paperwork, applying labor law and safety laws to Congress and curbing the practice of imposing costly new burdens on the states -- have been signed into law by President Clinton.
The occasional setback has also worked to the benefit of the GOP. A constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget failed by one vote in the Senate, but defeat helped spur the drive to actually balance the budget.
What makes the Republican accomplishments extraordinary -- beyond the speed and scope of the undertaking -- is that they are working with a slender majority in the Senate and with a Democrat in the White House.
Yet, in the Senate, Democrats only have been able to bargain around the edges to soften GOP proposals that ultimately are passed.
For example, Mr. Clinton used his veto power for the first time in June to stop a measure that would have cut $16.3 billion from the current year's spending by targeting many of his favorite programs.
After weeks of negotiations, Mr. Clinton and Senate Democrats, a handful of whom filibustered the bill, settled for a measure that wasn't much different. Less than $800 million -- 5 percent -- was shifted between categories to restore funds for Clinton priorities.
Just last week, the Senate voted by a margin of 87 to 12 to cut off guaranteed welfare benefits to the poor, with a majority of Democrats joining their Republican colleagues to end a program put in place by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Senate bill is considered milder than the House-passed version largely because it does not deny additional money to mothers who have children while on welfare, but the basic principle of the legislation is the same.
"The fact that so many liberal Democrats voted for that bill was stunning," said Rep. Charles Wilson, a conservative Democrat from Texas, who saw that vote as an omen for the future.
The contract played a big role in marginalizing Democrats.
In the House -- and to a lesser degree in the Senate -- the contract gave the Republicans an agenda that became a cause. It kept them focused, imposed discipline and made it easier for Mr. Gingrich to minimize dissent.
Meanwhile, the Democrats, reeling from the election results, were split. House Democrats are lead by liberals who want to fight the Republicans head-on; Senate Democrats are dominated by centrists willing to compromise. Mr. Clinton wavers between one tactic and the other, always with a careful eye toward next year's presidential elections.
The president, for all his outraged rhetoric and veto threats, already has come out in support of cutting taxes, shrinking Medicare, balancing the budget, and the Senate version of the welfare reform bill. Now, it's mostly a question of finding what Mr. Clinton calls "common ground."
"The 'Contract with America' changed the political climate in this country," said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Caucus. "Congress is now setting the direction."