GOP is outdoing Reagan in revamping government Republicans redesign 'social safety net,' cut red tape, jobs


WASHINGTON - Fifteen years after Ronald Reagan rode into Washington vowing to slay a federal monster he viewed as wasteful and bloated, the Republican Congress is on the verge of finishing the job.

Led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich - the driving force behind the conservative movement Mr. Reagan once commanded - today's Republicans have left Reaganomics in the dust. Not content with merely slowing government spending, they're rolling back more than a half-century of liberal social programs.

Mr. Gingrich, with undisguised scorn, says those programs have worsened the problems they were designed to fix, and created a new set of problems as well. But to many Americans, they are the very fabric of government, which millions have known and come to rely on throughout their lives.

Under the Republican-controlled Congress that came to power in last November's election, the nation's "social safety net," as Mr. Reagan termed it, is being shrunk and totally redesigned. Health and welfare programs for the poor are being turned over to the states with fewer, if any, federal strings attached.

Environmental and business laws are being rewritten, with an eye toward less government interference. The federal bureaucracy also is going under the knife, and the only question is exactly how many thousands of jobs will be cut. Middle-class benefits, such as health care for older citizens and subsidized loans for college students, are being squeezed.

Their self-styled revolution is too big to be completed this year or next, Republicans acknowledge. But with public opinion starting to turn against them and their plan, they've rolled as much as they can into a single, huge package. It has an overarching goal they hope will find favor with an angry and cynical electorate: balancing the budget within seven years.

Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, who arrived on Capitol Hill when Dwight D. Eisenhower was still president, calls this "a radical change in the way we do business in this country" and "a defining moment for our party."

Mr. Gingrich, who once taught college history, says that "it's not quite comparable to the New Deal, but it's certainly on the same scale as the Great Society."

Real change is occurring

Survey after survey shows that most Americans don't believe real change is taking place in Washington these days. But the people are wrong, according to independent analysts and scholars.

"The chances are that there will be massive changes in social policies," said Richard E. Neustadt of Harvard. "It will take people two or three years to grasp that."

The Republican drive to reduce the size and the reach of the federal government passed an important milestone last week when the House and Senate approved similar versions of the most ambitious budget plan ever crafted in Congress. It would generate almost $1 trillion in budget savings and $245 billion in tax cuts over seven years and, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, balance the federal budget in 2002.

Some of the shifts the Republicans would make are virtually unprecedented. For the first time in 60 years, health and welfare benefits no longer would be automatically guaranteed to every poor American mother and child. Seniors, farmers, recent immigrants, the disabled and the working poor would feel the pain of budget tightening, while middle-class families, investors and businesses would get tax relief.

The Republicans also are setting in motion vast changes in the nation's health care system, a realm that President Clinton and the Democratic Congress failed to reform when Democrats were in charge of Congress. The GOP plan sharply scales back the growth of the Medicaid insurance program for the poor and disabled, and it turns the whole program over to the states.

Five-year transition

And that's just the beginning. In a little-noticed speech last week, Mr. Gingrich said remaking health care in the conservative Republican image - less tied to government, more linked to market forces - could take five or six years.

"What's unique about '94 is that the Republicans really are trying go beyond what the Reaganites were trying to do in '81," said Gary C. Jacobson, a University of California political scientist. "The Reaganites were chipping away at the poverty programs of the '60s, but they kept their hands off the New Deal for the most part. Now the Republicans are taking whacks at the New Deal as much as they can."

A former Reagan domestic policy adviser agrees that the changes being implemented today dwarf the relatively modest reductions in social-spending growth under Mr. Reagan.

"Look at what Ronald Reagan did on Social Security as an example," said Martin Anderson, now at Stanford's Hoover Institution. Under Mr. Reagan, payroll taxes were raised in a plan whose "whole thrust was to preserve and protect" Social Security.

By contrast, Medicare, one of the safety-net programs Mr. Reagan declared off-limits to cuts, is now the Republicans' biggest target. It would yield $270 billion in budget savings, more than one-fourth of the overall amount.

"This is a level of deficit reduction that we've never undertaken before," said Isabel V. Sawhill of the Urban Institute, a policy research organization. "This one is cutting pretty close to the bone that people care about."

Balance of power is altered

Along with shifting the government's priorities, the Republicans are also radically altering the power equation in Washington.

With the Democrats in tatters and congressional Republicans marching in extraordinary unity, President Clinton has retreated into a defensive crouch, governing, in effect, as an independent and going along with much of what the GOP is proposing.

Mr. Clinton argues that the Republican package tilts too heavily in favor of the rich and would hit the working poor particularly hard. He's said he'll veto it, after House and Senate Republicans work out their differences and send him a final plan.

But with an eye toward his own re-election, he is all but certain to agree to some version of the Republican blueprint, once the smoke of the budget fight clears.

One Clinton aide said privately that the president's goal is to be able to stage a White House ceremony, in late November or December, with congressional leaders at his side, putting his signature on a plan that places the government on a path toward a balanced budget early next century. Whatever the exact details, Mr. Clinton has already agreed to the major tenets of the Republican agenda.

"He's made a considered judgment that his role is to add some balance to the process. He can say, "Well, we've compromised at the center, where most voters are,'" said Mr. Jacobson. "And that should give him a pretty good argument for next year: 'Re-elect me, to keep them from going too far.'"

One liberal strategist who is in close touch with the White House, but disagrees sharply with its go-along tactics, says Clinton advisers "have this notion that people elect presidents as kind of engineers to make the system work." That notion, however distasteful to Democratic die-hards, is rooted in a cold political calculation: that the biggest danger to Mr. Clinton's re-election would be a breakdown in Washington that signals a return to the legislative gridlock of the early 1990s.

Mr. Dole, the president's leading Republican challenger at the moment, and the 233 Republicans in the House, who also must face the voters next year, are under similar political pressure to get things done - which is the main reason almost everyone in Washington expects a budget compromise in the end.

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