ONCE A CONGRESS eager to set the national agenda, it is now a Congress that would settle for some national attention.
A little over a year ago, Speaker Newt Gingrich's Republican revolutionists stormed into Washington having taken control of Congress for the first time in four decades. They were going to cut government down the size, balance the budget, roll back the welfare state, reduce taxes, reform Medicare and Medicare and, on the side, transform the world.
Back on Capitol Hill this week after a February break that witnessed upheaval in the presidential primaries, some GOP legislators feel they are on another planet. While they prepare to battle the Clinton administration once again over balancing the budget, they find their party's would-be presidents are talking about almost anything but. Indeed, Pat Buchanan preaches a pitchfork populism philosophically at odds with Mr. Gingrich's vaunted "Contract with America."
Perhaps before April Fool's Day, perceptions will change. For there is still the nation's work to be done on Capitol Hill. By March 15, Congress either has to pass an omnibus appropriations bill acceptable to President Clinton or settle for inconclusive spending extensions for the rest of a fiscal year already one-third gone. By March 22, the debt limit has to be raised to avoid a national default. In addition, major bills dealing with immigration and agriculture, terrorism and the death penalty and a lot of other things, are in the hopper to be dealt with or put off till another day.
Behind the scenes, deficit-hawk Democrats are negotiating with the GOP leadership to determine if a balanced-budget package that is either veto-proof or acceptable to the White House can still be put together. This probably would require Republicans to pare back their tax-cut plans drastically and settle for reform rather than revolution in Medicare, Medicaid and welfare.
Because of national politics, however, a complication has set in that exacerbates the plight of House Republicans. Presidential candidates starting to talk about a "Clinton recession" want nothing to do with deficit reduction that might have a dampening effect on the economy.
Clearly, the once-proud Gingrich forces are chastened and in retreat. Beaten by President Clinton in the public opinion war over government shutdowns, ignored by White House contenders seeking upbeat issues, they have the choice of accepting compromises they once spurned or circling the wagons and waiting for a next year that may never come.