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Where Have All The GOP Reformers Gone?

On one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Bush persuaded his father and former President Bill Clinton -- not exactly a mutual admiration society -- to join hands by leading a U.S. drive to raise millions for South Asia's tsunami victims. The unity push continued on Jan. 3 when George W. urged freshman members of the 109th Congress to work together to "take on the big issues."

That message obviously didn't travel to the other end of the avenue. There, House Republicans flirted with political disaster by contemplating controversial rule changes designed to shield embattled Majority Leader Tom DeLay. While cooler heads eventually prevailed, on Jan. 4 House Republicans rammed through revisions that give the GOP a virtual veto on internal ethics investigations -- and permit lawmakers to negotiate for jobs with special interests even as they write legislation that benefits the same group. "An absolute outrage," wailed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Avoiding Filibusters

The disconnect between high-toned White House rhetoric and down-and-dirty Capitol Hill politics poses a major challenge to the President's ambitious second-term agenda. Bush wants sweeping changes in Social Security, health-care financing, and taxes -- all of which will require at least a modicum of across-the-aisle cooperation. Since Republicans still lack a veto-proof majority in the Senate, Democratic votes are vital to head off opposition filibusters. But increasingly, my-way-or-the-highway Hill Republicans are focusing on tactical victories that heighten partisan tensions -- and complicate Bush's strategy for giving his reform agenda a bipartisan sheen.

The tonal dissonance is heightened by the controversies swirling around DeLay. Three close DeLay associates have been indicted by an Austin grand jury probing campaign fund-raising, and House Republicans are desperate to protect their No. 2 leader from what they consider a political vendetta by a Democratic prosecutor. But their first solution -- repealing a rule that requires an indicted leader to temporarily step aside -- subjected the GOP to widespread ridicule. Representative Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), for one, reminded colleagues that the GOP won the House in '94 by campaigning against Democratic excesses and promising "a higher standard."

Shays's comments point up the role reversal on Capitol Hill in the decade of GOP rule. Republicans have backtracked on term limits, central to their "Contract With America." They have engaged in verbal acrobatics to justify record budget deficits. They have expanded the pork-barrel spending they condemned under Dem dominance. And they have twisted the rules to marginalize the minority.

What has been lost? Any sense that the GOP will clean up Congress after decades of Democratic abuses. "That's the history of reform movements," says Brookings Institution senior fellow Stephen Hess. "Before the blink of an eye, the reformist who took over the banana republic is acting just like the people he deposed."

Tinhorn authoritarianism may temporarily tighten the conservative firebrands' grip on power. But it limits GOP growth potential with reform-minded independents -- the kind of voter that Bush managed to corral. And without public support for his ambitious agenda, the President could fall short in his quest to become a reformer with results.

Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice has been spending time at Foggy Bottom interviewing employees to get a feel for the place -- and identify possible high-level appointments. Rather than fundamentally reshaping the State Dept. bureaucracy, insiders think she will elevate some career Foreign Service officers sympathetic to the Bush Administration's hard-line worldview. Such a move allows Rice to place careerists in high positions -- as outgoing Secretary Colin L. Powell did -- thus fostering staff loyalty while putting ideological soulmates in key slots.

Another sign of a hawkish second term: the expected departure of the moderate Brent Scowcroft as chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Scowcroft served as national security adviser to the President's father and was a vocal critic of the war in Iraq.

Optimistic congressional Republicans have downplayed the seriousness of record federal deficits. Their reasoning: A period of sustained economic growth and productivity gains will reduce, if not completely erase, red ink without deep budget cuts. Not so, says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office: "Productivity does not solve this problem, and you don't grow your way out of it. This is about budget choices." Of course, the U.S. grew its way out of huge deficits in the nineties. But Holtz-Eakin argues that exploding Social Security and Medicare costs as a result of coming baby boomer retirements preclude a repeat of that feat.

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