Mainstream GOP: still on the outside looking in

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- In the failed plotting to depose House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the one group of House Republicans without egg on their faces is the small collection of middle-roaders who call themselves the Mainstream Republicans.

There are, according to their leader, Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, about 40 of them in the House and a handful in the Senate, and Mr. Leach is quick to point out that the abandoned purge of Mr. Gingrich "was a challenge that came from the right of the party" -- the speaker's own people, not the self-styled Mainstreamers.

The turmoil that has resulted among House Republican conservatives does not, however, offer much hope for the Mainstreamers to exert much more influence on party positions in the House than they do now, which is minimal.

Indeed, Mr. Gingrich appears now to be under more pressure than ever to prove to his old troops on the right that he has not softened in his once-revolutionary zeal to cut government down to size and reduce its involvement in the lives of Americans.

From the sidelines of this latest internecine combat on the GOP right, Mr. Leach observes that "Gingrich is in a Catch-22 in circumstances that I don't think the (House Republican) membership understands well."

President Clinton, he notes, can stymie any Republican-led House or Senate initiative with only one-third of the vote, just as the Democratic president can't move his own legislative initiatives forward on his own without approval of the Congress in Republican hands.

Representative Gingrich himself has repeatedly indicated in recent days that he is well aware of the limitations placed on him by this reality of divided government.

Faced with accusations from some Republican conservatives that he has been caving in to President Clinton on a range of issues, he has tried to accentuate the positive, insisting that it is the president who is moving to the conservative position by negotiating for a balanced budget and tax cuts.

"The fact that Bill Clinton jumps up and now says, 'I'm for a tax cut too,' doesn't mean conservatives should say, 'My God, it must be terrible -- he's going to sign it,' " Mr. Gingrich lectured the troops the other day. "If Bill Clinton wants to sing in our choir, we're going to give him a hymnbook."

The trouble with that particular pitch, however, is that the president increasingly seems to be singing from a different page as he signals important differences with the Republicans on specifics of the budget and the scope and targets of tax cuts.

And that's one reason many members of the House Republican sophomore class -- those who rode into office on the Gingrich Revolution tide of 1994 -- are squirming over their old guru now.

The "dashed expectations" of these two-termers, Mr. Leach says, have been a key element in the frustration they feel and have openly expressed toward the House Republican leadership.

Matters were not made any better among the House Republicans when portions of a closed, air-clearing meeting the other night -- including a mea culpa by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay -- were taped by someone, possibly one of their own, and leaked to the press.

While more heads may yet roll, one less lethal outcome could be a loosening of Mr. Gingrich's grip on Republican committee chairmen and more power extended to them, a subject apparently broached in the meeting that finds favor among many House Republicans, including the Mainstreamers.

However, anyone looking at the recent self-inflicted wounds on the conservative majority in the House as a hint of a basic shift in philosophy or clout to a more moderate posture is likely to be disappointed. The Mainstreamers remain distinctly out of the mainstream as it exists in the House today.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from the Washington bureau of The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/28/97

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