Why The Gop's Right Wing Finds Itself Adrift

For House conservatives, 1997 is starting to look like the endless bummer. Republican revolutionaries' woes go far beyond the precarious standing of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). In rapid-fire succession, they've seen term- limit legislation go down, failed to stop a bill funding international family planning, and watched helplessly as support for a balanced-budget amendment eroded. Adrift and beset by infighting, the right finds itself forced to respond to a centrist agenda set by President Clinton.

Conservative activists are divided about how to regroup. Some say Republicans must stress such controversial policies as opposition to racial preferences and a radical shrinking of the federal bureaucracy to differentiate themselves from the Democrats. But others want to downplay hot-button issues and adopt an incremental approach more in sync with the let's-make-a-deal style of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) While the debate rages, the House--which drove the national agenda two years ago--is relegated to the sidelines and the party's moderates are gaining clout. "House conservatives have a big problem, and there's no apparent solution," sighs a GOP lobbyist.

NO FAITH? Increasingly, conservatives pin their woes on Gingrich. To rehabilitate his image after his ethics reprimand, the Speaker is making overtures to GOP moderates on the environment and affirmative action and even reaching out to Democratic liberals. Gingrich infuriated the faithful by inviting the Reverend Jesse Jackson to sit in the Speaker's box during Clinton's Feb. 4 State of the Union speech. "The Speaker is showing a lack of faith in his convictions," says conservative fund-raiser L. Brent Bozell III. Adds GOP business consultant Ward Connerly, who led the drive to end affirmative action in California: "He has to remember who brought him to the dance."

Some on the right say Gingrich has been so severely wounded he'll never recover--and the GOP would be better off with a new leader able to craft and sell an agenda. "Newt is a millstone," says one GOP lawmaker. In fact, many Republicans privately believe Gingrich will be pressured to step down as Speaker by the end of his term--if not sooner.

Already, uncertainty about Gingrich's future has sparked jockeying to replace him. His likely successor, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, isn't a sure bet. Armey's doctrinaire conservatism turns off moderates, and he lacks national stature. "He's more an inside organizer," says one GOP operative. So if Gingrich quits abruptly, conservative elder statesman Representative Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) may be drafted as interim Speaker.

While Gingrich twists in the wind, many conservatives want to ditch his tread-softly approach. On Feb. 13, nearly 70 House GOP conservatives unveiled a list of legislative priorities that includes a ban on late-term abortions, an end to the use of union dues for political purposes, and the elimination of racial preferences in federal contracts. "There's a void out there in the leadership agenda. We're going to fill it," vows Representative Sam Johnson (R-Tex.).

That's a long-shot strategy, given the GOP's own rifts and slim 21-vote edge. But that doesn't bother true believers. "Sometimes it's better to go down in defeat and define yourself positively that way," says Bozell.

The leadership's strategy is to avoid losing causes while piling up legislative gains until 1998, when the GOP hopes to capture more seats. But unless they patch up their own differences and rally behind an agenda, House Republicans may spend the next two years as bit players in a drama scripted by the White House and the Senate.

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