WASHINGTON -- In a painful retreat, Republicans who took over Congress two years ago and waged a crusade to shrink federal spending have given up some gains to reach a quiet end of their tumultuous term.
Badly bruised in budget battles with President Clinton that resulted in two government shutdowns last winter -- and facing stiff re-election challenges in many districts -- the Republicans have yielded to Clinton's demands to restore $6.5 billion in cuts to his pet programs as the price for a clean exit from Washington a month before November elections.
"Most of us don't agree with this, but we were afraid Clinton would shut down the government again and we would get blamed," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican from Maryland's Eastern Shore. "This whole thing these two years has been like passing a kidney stone."
As a further price for winning a budget deal with the White House before tonight, when most federal agencies would run out of money, the Republicans also made concessions on immigration policy and gun control, and might have to give up on a bill that would have expanded corporate sponsorship of national parks.
"They were frankly willing to pay a certain ransom to get out of town," David Mason, a congressional analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said of the GOP lawmakers. House members finished work on the final spending bill late Saturday; the Senate is expected to pass the measure today.
Republican leaders say that despite yielding to Clinton's demands for more spending on education, high technology, anti-terrorism, drug fighting and other priorities, they managed to save $53 billion in federal spending over the past two years.
But that savings total is disputed by Democrats and outside experts. What's more, it is chicken feed compared with the Republicans' ambitious attempt to squeeze nearly $1 trillion from federal spending in order to reach a balanced budget by 2002.
"Shrinking the government is like turning around a battleship: We didn't make any progress on that at all," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican who spent hundreds of hours last year crafting, passing and trying to get the White House to accept the balanced budget deal.
Even so, the first Republican-led Congress in four decades is heading home with a respectable list of accomplishments, most passed in a bipartisan blitz last summer, before lawmakers took a month off to campaign for re-election.
That period of productivity marked the beginning of the Republicans' willingness to make broad concessions to the White House in order to avoid being labeled a "do-nothing" Congress. At the same time, the Democrats were more willing to cooperate because GOP standard-bearer Bob Dole had just left his post as majority leader of the Senate, taking much of the tension of presidential politics with him.
The 60-year federal guarantee of welfare benefits was ended, and the program was turned over to the states to run. Depression-era farm subsidies are being phased out. A complex bill deregulating the communications industry also went through the GOP watch. And the president was given a power sought by many of his predecessors: a line-item veto enabling him to reject individual items in spending bills.
"You asked for real change in 1994," House Speaker Newt Gingrich, leader of what he once called the Republican "revolution," told a GOP rally on the Capitol steps last week. "We kept our word."
But congressional Democrats, who spent months in shock at their sudden relegation to minority status last year, can barely control their glee at the Republicans' reversal of fortune.
They are particularly amused that the GOP includes among its accomplishments a bill expanding access to health insurance coverage that was largely the handiwork of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.
In fact, Kennedy, the longtime poster boy for liberal politics, scored one of his most productive sessions ever under the Republicans, with victories that included a boost in the minimum wage, which GOP leaders originally had resisted.
"You can stand on the Capitol steps and hire a brass band and blow up a lot of balloons, but you still can't make a full-scale retreat look like a full-dress parade," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat. "The only time the Republican Congress worked was when they let the Democrats lead."
Congressional Republicans clearly took on a bigger challenge than they could manage with only a slender majority in the House, too few senators to block Democratic filibusters and a Democrat in the White House.
Driven by 73 confident but somewhat naive freshmen, the Republicans were buoyed by their early success in passing through the House nearly all of the items in their "Contract with America," a 1994 campaign document that they turned into a blueprint for governing.
Democrats like to disparage the contract, yet they are copying the idea for their "Families First" agenda in this year's campaign. The Democratic agenda includes a commitment to balance the budget by 2002.
But Gingrich was going well beyond the contract when he decided to dedicate his party to a specific plan for balancing the budget.
The effort collapsed largely because the Republicans tried to curb the growth of Medicare, the popular health care program for the elderly, at the same time they were pushing for a contract-prescribed tax cut.
Clinton also has proposed to curb Medicare, one of the most costly items in the budget. But labor unions and liberal opponents of the GOP plans were able to exploit the issue to portray the Republicans as robbing the elderly to give tax breaks to the rich.
"I don't think you advance the goal of balancing the budget by bringing forth a plan that is so patently wrong and unfair to most Americans," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat.
In their delight at finally taking the reins of power, some House Republicans approached the budget process with such a hard ideological edge -- particularly on issues such as regulation and the environment -- that public opinion turned against them.
"Newt had the idea that he could actually persuade the American people that this is what they wanted," Barbara Sinclair, a congressional expert at the University of California at Los Angeles, said of the original GOP budget proposal. "Even presidents have a great deal of difficulty with that sort of persuasion."
In political advertisements, Gingrich became the chief target of opponents' attacks on the budget. Those attacks, combined with the speaker's own acknowledged missteps and an ongoing House ethics investigation sought by the Democrats, have helped make Gingrich the most unpopular politician in America, and have imperiled many of his colleagues.
"We are not frightened," the speaker asserted at the rally last week. But he significantly lowered his sights when he declared that "the symbol to remember this Congress by" should be an ice bucket.
As part of their internal reforms, Republicans put an end to the century-old practice of twice-daily ice deliveries to House offices equipped with refrigerators. The unnecessary perk required 14 employees and cost $500,000 a year.
"For the average American, this says it all," Gingrich said.
At least it was one cut that Clinton didn't want restored.
Pub Date: 9/30/96