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This Year, The Hill's Fiercest Fights May Be Family Feuds

Washington Outlook


Whenever Congress kicks off an election-year session, you can count on pitched battles all the way to November. But in 1998, combat between Republicans and Democrats may be overshadowed by nasty fights within each party. "Both have cracks in their foundations," says a GOP operative. "The next year will tell us which crack is deeper."

The fissures will show up in congressional leadership struggles and early jockeying for the 2000 Presidential nomination. On both sides of the aisle, ideological purists want to push issues that sharpen the divides between parties. The result could be policy paralysis. "I don't think you'll see a lot of serious legislating," says Washington & Lee University political scientist William F. Connelly Jr.

"HOODWINKED OR ASLEEP." GOP ferment in the House could erupt at any time. Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and right-wing rebels have called a truce after the botched coup against him in '97. Still, the insurgents would like to force Gingrich out after the election and replace him with Representative Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.). Gingrich fired him from his leadership post for his role in the revolt, but Paxon has been piling up political chits by stumping for dozens of House candidates.

Some Republicans say Gingrich, who is eyeing a White House run, may step down by 1999. If not, Paxon may challenge House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). Already, he's dumping on Armey's push for a flat tax. "It's a political and policy mistake for us to talk about a solution before we've had a discussion with the public," Paxon says.

The right's beef with Gingrich? He sides too often with moderates, who oppose conservatives on such issues as curbing environmental regs and creating private-school tuition vouchers. In '98, conservatives may name "floor monitors" to fight higher spending for items ranging from roads to the arts. "There were times this past year we felt hoodwinked or asleep at the switch," says Representative Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.). "We're just not going to let that happen again."

In the Senate, Presidential politics will divide the GOP. An ongoing dispute will be over campaign finance. The leadership is dead set against reform, but Senators Fred Thompson of Tennessee and John McCain of Arizona may launch White House bids as champions of change. And Senator John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) may snarl GOP efforts to rally behind a single tax-reform scheme by pushing a popular plan to cut payroll taxes.

CENTRIST BACKLASH? The fight for the soul of the Democratic Party is no less intense. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Minnesota Senator Paul D. Wellstone--both White House wannabes and liberal stalwarts--want to change the party's centrist course charted by President Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore. Gephardt assailed the White House on Dec. 2 as a "money machine" but backed off after a furious party backlash. Still, he's leading union-backed Democrats to block Clinton-Gore initiatives, including new free-trade pacts and energy curbs to slow global warming. The left wing will also demand increased spending for domestic programs and will resist White House attempts to revamp Social Security and Medicare.

Outnumbered party moderates in Congress are threatening to fight back. Already, there's talk of a centrist challenge after the midterm election to Gephardt's No.2, liberal firebrand David E. Bonior of Michigan.

Such family feuds won't produce great legislation. But they will redefine both parties as they head into 2000. And that could have a major impact on the nation's agenda well into the next century.EDITED BY OWEN ULLMANN By Richard S. Dunham, with Amy BorrusReturn to top


-- Business hopes for a deal on product-liability reform are fading. After hinting at a compromise, President Clinton has come up with a new proposal that falls far short of the goals of corporate lobbyists. Business objects to a White House offer to cap punitive damages at $250,000, but only for small companies. Business also wants to ban juries from holding one company liable for all damages even if it were found only partly responsible. But the Clinton proposal doesn't address that issue.EDITED BY OWEN ULLMANNReturn to top

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