AS HOUSE REPUBLICANS took the plunge yesterday, passing a balanced budget bill purporting to cut taxes by $245 billion and hold down growth in Medicare spending by $270 billion over seven years, the initials BTU were a verb all over Capitol Hill. As in, "I don't want to get BTU'd by this legislation." What goes on here is a fear in some but not all GOP circles that the highly ideological stand imposed by the Gingrich leadership could make Republican candidates vulnerable to Democratic attacks in next year's elections.
The new verb hearkens back to 1993 when House Democrats, responding to the pleas of their new President Clinton, voted for a fiercely unpopular increase in energy taxes based on the amount of BTUs burned by a particular kind of fuel. Mr. Clinton later dropped this issue when the Senate objected, thus leaving House Democrats wide open to Republican sniping.
Could this political scorpion turn around and bite Republicans seeking a fundamental reduction in the size and activities of the federal government? Will elderly voters react to cutbacks in Medicare and turn their wrath on GOP legislators? Will reductions in student loans set off a campus rebellion, as Democrats hope?
Such questions achieved more urgency after a New York Times poll suggested that the public rejects GOP tax cut proposals by 3 to 1 and curtailment of Medicare increases by 2 to 1 margins. House Speaker Newt Gingrich denounced the poll's "left-wing" questions.
Even among those few Republicans voting against their own leadership, or among a larger number who were skeptical but going along, there was a mood that Mr. Gingrich's "Contract with America," as translated into the huge budget reconciliation bill, was something the party was duty-bound to pass. This was so, even though it was understood that final legislation emerging sometime in the Christmas period would be considerably modified to meet Senate and White House objections.
The course adopted by the House GOP is a step into the unknown. Legislators from marginal districts could get burned. Senior citizens and college students could retaliate.
Granted, these same Republicans may be counting on the passage of time, the lack of early impact by back-loaded legislation and the sheer weight of election year rhetoric to dim voter memories. But whatever citizens may think of the particulars in the 1995 GOP agenda, they should admire the willingness of Republicans to take political risks and do what they had promised, regardless of public opinion polls or the danger of being BTU'd. That's what representative democracy is all about.