CAPITOL HILL has never seen anything like it. Freshman legislators are supposed to take a back seat, learn the ropes and shut up. Not this time. The 73 House members of the Republican Class of '94 are the deal-breakers or deal-makers in a tense dispute over the very nature of government that is shaking Washington.
They regard themselves as the enforcers of a revolution who are ready to take on President Clinton, Senate majority leader Bob Dole and, if need by, even House Speaker Newt Gingrich to achieve success on their terms. It was Mr. Gingrich's "Contract FTC with America" that gave these freshmen a mandate and a mantra as they wrested congressional control from the Democrats for the first time in 40 years. As the budget struggle that has partially shut down government reaches a climax, the speaker is riding a tiger of his own creation.
It is a spectacle both he and the president, for different purposes, have encouraged. In negotiations with the White House, Mr. Gingrich has lamented that his hands are tied -- that he must insist on a balanced budget in seven years using congressional economic projections or risk a revolt among his troops. Mr. Clinton said as much this week, charging that the "most extreme. . . anti-government group" in Congress was blocking a compromise.
But skeptics on the Hill draw a more nuanced conclusion. They see Mr. Gingrich as using the power of his freshmen as a bargaining gimmick to attain his own objectives. They warn against underestimating the fervor for unity that animates the House GOP Caucus.
True-believers, the freshmen look askance at politics as usual and profess indifference to re-election. "Our obstinance comes from the knowledge that we are right," said Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida. "If we cave on principles, then we're no better than the rest," said Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona.
How different is this situation from 1946, the last time Republicans captured Congress with a Democrat in the White House. President Harry Truman complained that the "Do-Nothing Congress" was out to stymie Democratic initiatives. The House speaker then was not a zealous Newt Gingrich but "dependable and fair-minded" Joe Martin of Massachusetts, as a Truman biographer described him.
Republicans, 1995-style, will never be known as "do nothings." Their initiatives define the national agenda. Their goal is to "do plenty " -- even to extreme. However the current clash of wills in Washington turns out, the GOP freshmen on Capitol Hill will have made their mark.