WASHINGTON -- The drubbing that House Republican leaders took on health care this week offered fresh evidence of just how hard it is to control Congress with a razor-thin majority.
In the House and Senate, a determined Democratic minority has often been able to attract enough Republican defectors to seize control of the agenda -- and appear to make Congress dance to a Democratic tune.
The Democrats have forced action on gun control and campaign finance reform, besides the bill regulating managed health care plans. Soon, Congress will take up and probably pass a Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage, an idea the Republican leadership opposes.
At the same time, Republican leaders are struggling, without help from the Democrats or the White House, to keep spending within almost impossibly tight limits.
If that weren't enough to bear, congressional leaders have also had to deal with second-guessing from Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the Republican presidential front-runner, and from members in their own ranks.
"We're just trying to do the best we can with what we've got," said Tony Rudy, a top aide to Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who has assumed the major House leadership role. "You can't lead an army if you don't have an army."
Thanks to the last election, party switches and vacancies, House Republicans outnumber the combined forces of the Democrats and Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent who typically votes with the Democrats, by just 222 to 213.
The Republicans' advantage has meant that a defection of five members could throw a vote to the other side. That margin has shrunk to four with the absence for the next couple of months of Joe Scarborough, a Florida Re publican who recently injured his back.
Republicans also have a five-vote margin in the Senate. But there, a 60-vote majority is effectively required to get anything done, and there are just 55 Republican senators.
"If you had a president of the same party, those margins would mean more because you'd need only one-third to sustain a presidential veto," said Rich Galen, a former aide to Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker. "With a president of the opposition party, the situation is practically ungovernable."
Some Democrats contend that the Republican leadership is simply out of touch with mainstream America. They say that the 68 House Republicans who deserted their leaders Thursday to support a patient protection bill backed by the Democrats and the White House are listening to their constituents.
"Republicans are getting very nervous," Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said. "They know that it's our agenda that resonates with the American people, whether it's the patients bill of rights, minimum wage, gun legislation or campaign reform.
"Moderates and others are bolting their own party ranks in an effort to be on the right side of these important issues."
Republican leaders counter that House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, is honoring a promise to be fair and to allow the House to consider legislation Hastert doesn't support.
"We knew September and October were going to be Democratic months," said Rudy, the DeLay aide. "We're just trying to focus on getting our spending bills done."
Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who worked with Republican leaders to block a gun-control plan but against them on the managed care bill that passed Thursday, contends that the politics of consensus is at work.
"Anything important that gets done around here comes from the center," said Dingell, completing his 45th year in the House.
What frustrates DeLay is that when legislation comes from the center, it inevitably means that his party has broken into factions.
For example, in trying to defeat the patients' rights bill sponsored by Dingell and Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican, DeLay backed an alternative patient protection bill that did not go far enough for liberals but went too far for conservatives. Both extremes, DeLay said, were arrayed against him.
Lessons from 1994
Something similar happened to the Democrats just before they lost control of Congress in 1994. Conservative House Democrats and liberal members of the Congressional Black Caucus joined forces to block a crime bill that had been one of President Clinton's top priorities.
Critics of the Republican leaders say they are too concerned about playing to the conservative base of their party and not enough about the image of insensitivity toward ordinary working Americans that they may project.
"If we want to maintain control of Congress, we need to reach beyond our base, while explaining to the base why that's necessary," said Michael Johnson, who served as chief of staff to former House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel.
Johnson contended that Republicans could be taking more credit for issues that Democrats claim as theirs. Various measures intended to address problems in the health care industry, for example, have been kicking around Congress for years, and have had energetic advocates in both parties.
Bush trained a national spotlight on a concern that his party's leadership is tone-deaf to how its message plays to moderate voters. Too often, Bush said, his party has "confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself."
More galling to DeLay was that Bush took aim at a DeLay-backed proposal for making up a $4.5 billion gap in an education spending bill by delaying tax refunds to the working poor.
Bush warned against trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor" -- effectively killing the idea.
Republican leaders have boxed themselves into a corner by pledging not to draw on the surplus of Social Security tax money to pay for general government programs.
If they succeed in that goal, the Republicans would score an achievement not matched in two decades. But holding their troops in line to make the necessary spending cuts has been difficult. And Republicans are determined to avoid the fiasco of another government shutdown, like the two in 1995 that turned the public against them.
Some critics suggest that Republican leaders ought to have set more ambitious goals for this legislative year.
"I think they could have been a lot bolder," said Marshall Wittmann, an analyst for the Heritage Foundation. "They gave up on their tax-cut bill after Clinton vetoed it, when they could have moved it in pieces. They could have pushed to reform Social Security, instead of just trying to put the money aside.
"They might have lost," Wittmann added. "But at least they'd be playing on their own turf."
Democrats are eagerly expecting to retake the House next year. But odds are that their governing majority might be no bigger than the Republican edge is now.