WASHINGTON -- The movement to impose term limits on members of Congress suffered a devastating defeat last night, with a proposed constitutional amendment not only failing in the House but receiving fewer votes than it did two years ago.
The vote marks the end of any serious effort to enact a term-limits amendment, which served as the battle flag of the anti-Washington armies a few years ago, at least for the duration of the 105th Congress. Its prospects in the Senate had always been dim.
The vote of 217-211 not only fell 69 votes short of the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments, but the ayes were also 10 below the 227 in 1995, when the tally was 227-204.
This vote, the House's first legislative action of the year, had been promised two years ago by Speaker Newt Gingrich at the time of the 1995 defeat. He said then that Republican supporters would prevail this time.
The amendment would have prevented anyone from serving more than 12 years in the House or the Senate, or a total of 24 in both. It was supported by 180 Republicans and 37 Democrats. It was opposed by 165 Democrats, 45 Republicans and one independent.
The final vote came after a day of debating 11 variations of the amendment, an exercise that demonstrated the factional divisions that supporters said hurt their cause.
The most popular version, and the one that was ultimately defeated, allowed six two-year terms in the House and two six-year terms in the Senate. But seven amendments sought to allow just three two-year terms for the House, with minor variations in wording or numbering.
Under referendums passed in nine states, their representatives were directed to vote for that state's version and to oppose all others. None of those amendments got more than 87 votes.
In the Maryland delegation, only Republicans Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest voted in favor of the most popular measure. Voting against it were Republicans Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Constance A. Morella, and Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin, Elijah E. Cummings, Steny H. Hoyer and Albert R. Wynn.
"Religious wars have been fought for less," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat and an opponent of all versions of the term limits amendment.
Frank called them undemocratic, a measure of distrust and of a "sense that the voters can be a bad influence on this place" if allowed to choose freely.
Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican, said limits were necessary because too much power was vested in the hands of a few, most members got re-elected and "careerism does affect too many members of Congress."
Rep. Charles T. Canady, another Florida Republican, said, "Term limits will break the power of entrenched bureaucracy."
McCollum, who has led the forces seeking a 12-year term limit since he arrived in the House in 1981, lamented the "internecine warfare" that hobbled supporters.
In particular, he blamed an organization known as U.S. Term Limits, which supported the other referendums and denounced as sellouts supporters of 12-year limits in the House.
The group has run a television advertisement in which McCollum's face morphs into that of Fidel Castro, hardly a popular figure in McCollum's Orlando district.
Another factor in the setback for the term limits advocates, who claimed support of 75 percent of the public in various polls, was the recent turnover in Congress.
The movement began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Democrats seemed in almost permanent control of the House.
But the situation is very different today. Fifty-four percent of House members were first elected in 1992 and later, and Republicans won control of the House in 1994.
Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican, said that election, and especially the defeat of Speaker Thomas S. Foley and two powerful committee chairmen, Dan Rostenkowski and Jack Brooks, showed that the measure was unnecessary.
The dean of the House, Michigan Democrat John D. Dingell, who was first elected in 1955, said, "Our existing system of term limits works splendidly -- it is called elections."
Few leading members of the House, and only one committee chairman -- Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon, the New York Republican who heads the Rules Committee -- spoke in favor of term limits.
The opposition was led by Frank and Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee.
"To adopt term limits," Hyde warned, "is to play Russian roulette with the future. Freedom is always in crisis, and America has need of its giants with their sense of the past and a vision of the future."
Pub Date: 2/13/97