Hill Democrats Are Ready To Rumble With Gingrich And Clinton

Hoping to capitalize on Bill Clinton's big lead, Newt Gingrich's unpopularity, and millions spent by unions and environmental groups, House Democrats went all out to regain their majority. Now that they've fallen short--and face years of wandering in the wilderness--Hill Democrats are taking a cue from the aggressive script Gingrich used to destabilize ruling Dems in the early '90s.

It's a variation of the "triangulation" scheme Clinton used last spring, seizing the political center by casting himself as the defender of moderates alienated by both liberal Democrats and GOP hard-liners. Now, House Democrats hope to pose as defenders of working-class Americans, caught in the brutal game of budget balancing that compromiser Clinton may play with the Hill majority. If the President tries to cut a politically risky deal with Republicans, the Dems will attack the GOP on issues where they're vulnerable: Medicare spending, environmental protection, and aid to education. "If they go ahead with an extremist agenda, we're going to clean their clocks," vows Representative George Miller (D-Calif.).

NO DEALS. That's bad news for Clinton, who will want to work with Congress to cement his role as a centrist leader and seal his place in history. But House Democrats are more concerned about the next election. Indeed, their situation resembles the GOP's in 1990, when House Republican firebrands led by Gingrich assailed President Bush for cutting a tax-hiking budget deal with a Democratic Congress. Newt's strategy contributed to Bush's 1992 defeat but paved the way for the 1994 GOP Hill sweep.

Now that they're on the sidelines, veteran House Democrats feel no obligation to cut deals. "None whatsoever," says Representative Barney Frank (Mass.). "There's much less pressure on the minority." Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) was more diplomatic after being reelected as Minority Leader on Nov. 18, pleading with Republicans to "meet us in the middle." But then he lacerated the GOP for favoring "deep, disabling cuts in Medicare and education." Meanwhile, House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (Mich.) is turning up the heat on ethics complaints against Gingrich.

When they're not playing antagonist, Democrats hope to have a say in policy by pushing popular middle-class issues. Atop the list are education initiatives, including tax breaks for college tuition, additional funding for school computers and literacy programs, and federal aid to rebuild crumbling school buildings. Other legislative priorities: preventing corporations from raiding employee pension funds, prohibiting insurance companies from ordering outpatient mastectomies, preserving food-stamp benefits for ex-welfare recipients, and requiring U.S. allies in Europe and Asia to pay a greater share of defense costs.

MASS EXODUS? Democrats know they must chalk up some wins before 1998. Historically, a second-term President's party suffers big losses in midterm congressional elections. Also, Dems face a likely mass exodus of veterans who chose to stick it out in '96 hoping for a party triumph. Potential retirees include once-powerful committee chairmen John D. Dingell of Michigan (Commerce), Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas (Banking), George E. Brown Jr. of California (Science), Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana (International Relations), and J. Joseph Moakley of Massachusetts (Rules).

Retirement may prove a handy escape from the humiliation of continued minority status. But other senior Democrats see guerrilla warfare as a more effective antidote. It won't be popular with Hill Republicans or the Democrat in the White House, but it's the only survival strategy they've got.

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