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The 105 Th Congress: How The Republicans Blew It

Washington Outlook


As the book slams shut on the vocal, vapid, and venomously partisan 105th Congress, this much seems clear: Armed with fat media budgets and a cadre of better-than-average candidates, Republicans stand to do well on Nov. 3. So why aren't they smirking? Because whatever gains Republicans rack up in the elections will be made in spite of--not due to--their legislative performance on Capitol Hill.

The 105th, which President Clinton is already bashing as a monument to do-nothingism, started off swimmingly. Last year, Republicans and Democrats passed the Balanced Budget Act and sat back to watch the federal surplus--and their approval ratings--soar. Then it all went kablooey. This year, Congress became a legislative boneyard. An antismoking bill, campaign-finance reform, revision of bankruptcy laws, and an attempt to revamp financial industry regs all died. Fast-track trade negotiating authority fizzled, as did attempts to give patients more leverage against managed-care combines. And the big GOP tax cut? It expired in the Senate before Clinton could uncap his veto pen.

To understand this mess, it's necessary to reprise the strategy shaped by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. The plan had these key elements: Veer from cooperation to the polarization that fires up red-meat right-wingers; give GOP candidates an issue by forcing the President to veto a big tax cut; provoke the White House into enraging conservatives with vetoes of abortion restrictions and environmental curbs attached to end-of-year money bills.

Though it wasn't part of the grand design, when Monicagate bounced their way, Gingrich and Lott vowed to play it smart. They promised a dignified GOP probe, with no talk of impeaching Clinton until '99.SPENDING SQUABBLE. Each of these strategies has come undone. Take the GOP's vanishing tax cut. Responding to firebrands' calls for a big tax bill to ease the "marriage penalty" on joint filers, Gingrich pushed an $80 billion plan through the House. But he ignored warnings from Senate Republicans that the votes weren't there for a costly tax measure--mainly because Clinton would nail the move as a reckless run on Social Security. On Oct. 9, the bill died in the Senate.

"We're learning that if you're a majority, you've got to seek consensus early on," says Representative Marge Roukema (R-N.J.). But Gingrich shows no sign of letting up the pressure. Next year, he aims to come back with a huge rate cut that would dwarf this year's $80 billion package.

Republicans also managed to bungle the spending showdown with the White House. Because squabbling House and Senate committees got way behind schedule, a plan to swamp Clinton with a half-dozen appropriations bills--each lined with special provisions for hardliners--never materialized.

Instead, Republicans once again confronted the disastrous possibility of a government shutdown. To make matters worse, Clinton scored big by portraying the dispute as a lofty fight for his education initiatives. In the end, GOP leaders stripped off pet riders and gave the White House a victory. Says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato: "Republicans seem incapable of grasping the fact that any President has more leverage than they do."

Republican leaders' handling of the Clinton scandal hasn't fared much better. After Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr lobbed his report to Congress on Sept. 2, the idea was for House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) to be the voice of reason on impeachment. But soon, discipline broke down as angry House conservatives called for Clinton's scalp.

The result: The public has overwhelmingly turned against the Republican inquiry, branding it partisan overkill. In a Washington Post poll released on Oct. 12, 62% of those surveyed disapproved of the GOP's handling of the impeachment probe. More ominously, Congress' favorable rating has dropped from 52% to 45%. "Republicans made themselves look foolish," says Steven S. Smith, a University of Minnesota political scientist. "Their handling of the [scandal] has now become the issue."

In fairness, Republicans had their moments during the fractious 105th. Gingrich and Lott claim, with reason, that Clinton would never cut the balanced-budget deal without unrelenting GOP pressure. Similarly, a series of superbly staged hearings enabled Republicans to push their plan for an overhaul of the Internal Revenue Service past White House objections.

What those triumphs have in common is that they occurred a long time ago, before the wheels fell off of the congressional locomotive. Now, Republicans are looking at the midterm elections without a unifying platform, such as 1994's Contract With America. All that's left is the 105th's Contract With Chaos--and few pols think it will be enough to propel the party to the crushing November sweep Gingrich and Lott once envisioned.EDITED BY LEE WALCZAKReturn to top

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