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Young, restless on Capitol Hill New force in Washington: There are 73 Republican freshmen in the House of Representatives, and they have been the most cohesive and influential group of lawmakers to descend upon the Capitol in a generation.


WASHINGTON -- With their bold, brash voices and Mr. Smith-like idealism, the Republican freshmen of the House of Representatives came to Washington this year to balance the budget, scale back government, rein in spending -- and get in Congress' face.

And that is just where they've been for the past 10 months.

There are 73 Republican freshmen in the House of Representatives, and they have been the most cohesive and influential group of lawmakers to descend upon the Capitol in a generation.

They have been the revolutionaries behind Newt Gingrich's conservative reform machine, and the driving force behind the monumental budget bill that passed in the House Thursday night.

They are a bit of a rag-tag team, a little less polished and suave than the usual suit seen roaming the halls of Congress. Half are political novices -- former sports commentators, insurance agents, veterinarians, house renovators, a Hall of Fame wide receiver and a pop singer.

Most are boomers. Some are too young to be boomers.

This is not your father's U.S. Congress.

More than many of their well-seasoned, consensus-building, "go along, get along" elders, the new lawmakers -- who pushed the House GOP into the majority after 40 years in the shadows -- feel they are on a mission to shake up the system. Among them is Maryland's only newcomer in the House, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

'A destiny of sorts'

"They feel that they have a destiny of sorts," says James Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor who has written a book to be published in December on the new Congress. "They feel they are a special and chosen people."

To be sure, there have been some fireworks between the newcomers and the Republican leadership. Some of the freshmen, especially those supported by Christian conservatives, have groused that House Speaker Gingrich continues to postpone dealing with social issues, an area where the freshmen class is much less homogenous.

But the unity and zealousness of the first-termers have more often than not been useful tools for Mr. Gingrich, giving him heft and a handy excuse for holding the conservative line when negotiating with the White House, Democrats, and the Senate, and allowing the freshmen to take the heat for more radical measures.

"The freshmen now think we're the moderates," the speaker joked this week.

On the budget bill, for instance, the freshmen bloc -- which accounts for about one-third of the House Republican members -- refused to budge on several issues: balancing the budget within seven years, providing $245 billion in tax cuts for the middle class, abolishing the Commerce Department and reforming welfare by, among other changes, ending payments to unwed teen mothers.

"They were very insistent on the more conservative, some would say draconian, approach to welfare," says Mr. Gimpel. "If it had been left up to the old bulls, the House wouldn't have gone nearly as far."

Although polar opposites in ideology, the GOP class of '94 is often compared with the "Watergate babies" of 1974, the group of 75 Vietnam-era, post-Watergate Democratic freshmen. They were the product of a sweeping anti-Republican, anti-war, anti-Nixon, mistrust-of-government sentiment.

They, too, set the tone for Congress after their election, focusing, like their contemporary counterparts, on change, and leaving as their legacy modest institutional reforms such as the revamping of the budget process. Most were liberals, and all but three were re-elected in 1976.

But the Watergate crew was not nearly as unified, nor as influential, as the current class.

Power and position

For one thing, Mr. Gingrich, from the start, bestowed upon today's newcomers unparalleled power and position, placing them on important committees such as Ways and Means, Rules and Appropriations, naming them as subcommittee chairs, and allowing them to have his ear.

In return for Mr. Gingrich's attention, the freshmen have given the speaker almost unflinching allegiance, generally backing him key votes in the name of party unity, as they did this week with the budget package.

"He proved to us that he was going to give the freshmen a voice," says Rep. Mark Foley of Florida. "That's why we are more loyal to him."

Although their fealty is so notable that Democrats often deride the GOP babes for their lock-step, Stepford-like procession behind their leader, there have been moments of tension and, recently, a semi-uprising.

Earlier this month, when freshman Mark W. Neumann of Wisconsin voted against the defense spending bill, he was thrown off a defense spending subcommittee in a move sanctioned by the speaker.

Mr. Neumann's fellow freshmen, furious at his treatment, demanded meetings with Mr. Gingrich and prevailed upon him to change course. After threatening to withhold their support on the agriculture spending bill, they forged a settlement with the speaker in which Mr. Neumann was given a spot on the prestigious budget committee instead of his former post.

Fiercely ideological

The defiant and, for the most part, fiercely ideological freshmen have made their presence felt in many other ways, often in stand-offs with their more moderate brethren, especially in the Senate. Several spending bills have stalled because of amendments added by House freshmen on abortion and environmental issues.

And in exchange for their support of the budget bill this week, freshmen and other conservatives strong-armed Mr. Gingrich into helping them on a controversial bill to curtail the lobbying activities of groups that receive federal grants. The amendment already has stalled a House spending bill to which it was attached.

Some freshmen, those who promised voters they would change the way Congress works, had been bracing for a fight with the leadership over lobbying reform, specifically the limiting of gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers.

'A symbolic demonstration'

The Republican leadership yesterday promised a vote on the measure by mid-November. Party leaders have been reluctant to bring such congressional reform issues to the floor, saying they would take time away from budget priorities.

"It's a symbolic and fundamental demonstration to the public of what we're all about," insists gift ban-proponent Mr. Foley, of Florida. "We're demanding radical change and we've got to be vocal about it. We've learned in the 10 months we've been here that if you don't speak up for your cause, you get run over."

Some critics charge that the freshmen have learned a lot more than that in their short time here -- that, in fact, they've learned to indulge in the money culture of Washington just like their elders.

Common Cause, a congressional watchdog group, reports that in the first six months of this year, the 1994 Republican and Democratic freshmen in the House raised "huge sums" -- almost half of their total campaign funds -- from special interest groups to which they could be beholden.

Similar "business as usual" complaints were leveled at the reform-minded Watergate babies in the ensuing years.

Not only did they fail to live up to expectations, some suggest they evolved into the imperial Congress. The one that today's fresh-faced lawmakers have come to conquer.

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