Republican fission Zealots vs. pragmatists: GOP unity unravels on Capitol Hill to the delight of Democrats


THE REPUBLICAN juggernaut that came rolling out of the last election to take over Congress no longer looks invincible, thus confirming once again that zealotry and practical politics don't mix very well.

Zealots in this case are ultra-conservatives in the House who actually believe they have been ordained by the voters to impose their "Contract with America" upon an electorate supposedly seething with tax-cut fever, anti-abortion sentiment and an overwhelming urge to shred the social welfare safety net.

Their foes are not the Democrats, whose enmity can be taken for granted. Rather, the bad guys are pragmatic Republican senators, old hands at the game, who instinctively wince at the accusation that the GOP is out to gut Medicare in order to give a tax break to the wealthy.

Some of these sensitized senators are legislative veterans with impeccable conservative credentials: Orrin Hatch, Alan Simpson and Alfonse D'Amato. They let it be known last week they don't like the combination of cutting taxes by $245 billion over seven years and the growth of Medicare by $270 billion over seven years. The similarity of numbers gives Democrats a chance to play class warfare.

When Senate Republican leader Bob Dole followed by saying "maybe we shouldn't go all the way to the $245 billion," the wrath of Speaker Newt Gingrich was predictable. He vowed that the Senate was "honor-bound" to accept the $245 billion tax-cut figure. Otherwise, he suggested, Republican senators could forget about "pass[ing] anything in the House."

Mr. Gingrich, a tax-cut enthusiast, had more than the obvious reason to speak out forcefully. He had just been embarrassed to see House Repuiblicans turn on one another when hot-button issues hit the floor. Contending GOP factions teamed up with delighted Democrats to reject two key appropriation bills. One, granting $7 billion more to defense than the Pentagon requested, fell victim to anti-abortion hardliners and deficit-cutting purists. The other saw 91 "green" Republicans reject GOP assaults on environmental regulations.

Republicans had better regroup this week. If they really wish to reinvent government, they should reduce a tax cut that works against their avowed aim to balance the budget. This time, pragmatic GOP senators have it right.

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