The House Enforcer Isn't Blinking

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay is a happy warrior. As chief vote-counter and head-knocker for the GOP revolution, the Texas Republican spends each day leading his troops into battle to claim what he calls "the fruits of our victory."

Victory is simple to the 48-year-old former exterminator from suburban Houston: making sure that the GOP's ideological agenda isn't watered down by Capitol Hill moderates--even those in his own party. From free-enterprise economic policy to pro-family social issues, "I see myself as the first line of offense," the No.3 House Republican leader says.

DeLay's uncompromising stance has emboldened the young House Republicans, who vow to go to the mat to enact their Contract With America. But such intransigence could soon spell trouble for House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). He must begin horse-trading with a less conservative Senate and a Democratic President if he hopes to salvage tax cuts, a balanced-budget plan, welfare overhaul, regulatory reform, and other key Contract planks.

For now, the whip is pushing GOP leaders to stick with purity over pragmatism. As chief Contract enforcer, DeLay has led the charge to slash government agencies, roll back environmental laws, restrict abortion, punish out-of-wedlock births, and promote public prayer. His red-meat rhetoric--he denounced the Environmental Protection Agency as "the Gestapo of government"--delights conservatives but makes moderates and liberals blanch. Snaps Gregory S. Wetstone, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council: "He's about as extreme as anyone in this Congress."

DeLay's firebrand rhetoric hasn't hindered his effectiveness: He has won 99% of all votes backed by the leadership. As for his own pet projects, "I haven't lost any," he boasts. He forced changes in a GOP telecom reform bill to make it more free-market. Now, he's blocking an antiterrorism measure which he claims jeopardizes gun ownership rights and gives too much clout to the feds. Another current project: curb EPA and workplace-safety regulators. "I know a lot about pest control," he says, "and we're finding a lot of varmints up here."

That mix of hardline beliefs and hardball politics has been the hallmark of DeLay's public career. He ran for the Texas legislature in 1978 because he was unhappy with government regulation of his business, and his push to undo costly state rules on the trucking industry won him the nickname "Tommy DeReg." Despite his unyielding politics, DeLay's deft touch at building personal relationships since coming to Congress in 1985 helped win him the whip job.

FAST TRAIN. But both DeLay's fervor and his friendships will soon be tested. Gingrich's conciliatory talk about finding common ground with Senate moderates and the White House on a budget plan to avoid a "train wreck" that would shut down government could clash with DeLay's vow to protect the GOP Contract.

The Texan denies the party leadership is split. "We can play good cop, bad cop," he insists. But it's a dicey strategy. A stubborn stand for purity could alienate moderates and sink leadership hopes for even modest achievements, such as cutting student loans, easing environmental controls on business, or reforming welfare. Yet too much compromising may provoke an insurrection from the 73 House GOP freshmen who sometimes, jokes DeLay, make him feel like a "squishy moderate."

In the end, a conservative rebellion could sink legal reform, regulatory curbs, and family tax breaks. That would be fine with the hardliners, who'd then run on the issues in '96. But DeLay has counted heads and is betting that his thunder on the right will convince Gingrich that cutting too many deals with Hill centrists or Bill Clinton could be a dangerous game.

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