Can Clinton And The Republicans Ever Get Back To Business?

Both Democrats and GOP Right may sabotage compromises

Last December, Representative Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.) took a deep breath and voted to impeach Bill Clinton. But as the President's Senate trial winds to a fitful close with Clinton still standing, Bilbray is sweating. The San Diego moderate only narrowly won reelection. And the recent trial in the Senate--led unpersuasively by his House colleague Henry Hyde (R-Ill.)--is unlikely to have won many new supporters for Bilbray.

Now, fearful that impeachment backlash could cost the party control of Congress in 2000, Bilbray has joined a growing number of Republicans begging their leaders to put away their pitchforks and cut as many deals as it takes to enact popular legislation in 1999. "We've got to prove we can get things done," he says. "If it happens to make Bill Clinton look good, who gives a damn?"

Polls say that public approval of the GOP is at its lowest point since Richard Nixon's impeachment, and Bilbray & Co. want the party to drop its fixation with White House scandal and push an agenda that won't make Republicans look like out-of-touch moralizers. "We have to make it clear that we're not the anti-Clinton party," says Representative James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), "but the small-government, better-government, better-education party."

AT ODDS. Sounds like a comeback plan. There's only one problem: Republicans probably won't be able to pull it off. While the GOP has agreed on the broad outline of an agenda focusing on tax cuts, a Social Security fix, modest education reforms, and more defense spending, members are at odds with each other over specifics. And if impeachment has proven anything, it is how difficult it is for party moderates to buck right-wing hard-liners not anxious to compromise. "I've heard more talk of meaningless compromise in the past year than I have ever heard in American politics," thunders Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson. "We need leaders of backbone and courage who will fight for principle."

The Republican rehabilitation program also could be stymied by Democrats who are more than happy to watch the clock run out on the GOP Congress. Already salivating over the chance to run against "do-nothing" Republicans in 2000, the Dems are unlikely to give major concessions. Between the right and left, those Republicans trying to get back to middle ground are being squeezed out.

Despite such obstacles, there are still some opportunities for congressional Republicans to salvage something of the 106th Congress. The demise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) helps. A polarizing figure, Gingrich was barely on speaking terms with House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). New House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), a more traditional conservative, is quietly dismantling the investigative machinery that Gingrich geared up to probe real and imagined Administration scandals. Hastert also is courting Democratic allies for GOP initiatives and warning social conservatives not to bog down spending bills with amendments on hot-button issues, such as abortion.

CUTTING MOOD. Playing ball with the White House, however, will be key. Clinton seems willing and even eager to work with his former GOP accusers to help secure a fix for Social Security and a legacy for his scandal-plagued Presidency. In return for cooperation, the White House will even consider some limited tax cuts. That's fine, if only the Republicans could agree on which taxes and how much to cut.

The failure to agree--even on the signature tax issue--has some business supporters fuming about the GOP. "The Republican Party has to reaffirm to the American people what it stands for," says Barry K. Rogstad, president of the American Business Conference, a group of midsize companies. "It is bouncing all over the place." Ironically, the one issue that the Republicans may be able to coalesce around is a pet project of Clinton's: tax credits to encourage school construction and renovation.

But conservatives are not giving the Hill Republicans much room to maneuver. "People are not inspired by a party that does a lot of dealmaking with the opposition," warns Amway Corp. president Dick DeVos, a prominent conservative activist.

For party pragmatists, DeVos' hard-line stance could mean two more years of stalemate. And if public anger over impeachment smolders into 2000--the way irritation with the GOP over the 1995-96 government shutdown tipped the 1996 elections--the Republicans will face a Y2K problem that may prove far more unfixable than the computer bug.

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