On The Hill, The Republicans Are A Team Divided

With Campaign 2000 in full cry, Hill Republicans have three burning objectives: 1) pass a few key bills; 2) hit the hustings for some frenzied flesh-pressing; 3) survive.

Sounds like a plan. But before GOP lawmakers can quit the capital, they must endure some bruising skirmishes. First, they have to grapple with President Clinton, who again has gained the upper hand in upcoming budget talks by hanging the threat of a government shutdown over their heads. And they must battle Democrats, who keep moving the bar for compromise to cast their foes as exemplars of a do-nothing Congress.

To complicate matters, Republican must vie with Republican. Worried about losing its six-seat majority, the House GOP wants to pass social legislation to counter the Dems' fall onslaught. But Senate leaders, more confident that they will retain control on Nov. 7, are less inclined to deal. "There are no lines of communication between the House and Senate at the moment," laments Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. "There is strong message coordination among [Dems] and none among Republicans."

GOP leaders vow to work together as the congressional session wraps up. But Republicans lost a key conciliator with the July 18 death of Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell. And tight races have worsened the every-pol-for-himself mood.

Case in point: the minimum wage. Last month, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) held out a tempting offer to Clinton. He would back a $1 increase in the $5.15 minimum wage over two years if the White House would accept a package of $76 billion in small-business tax breaks. Democrats were interested. But Senate Republicans saw the Speaker's bid as capitulation. "Hastert is doing what he's got to do," says one top Senate GOP aide. "For him, it's a matter of survival. Over here, [Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott is standing up for core principles." To Lott, government-mandated wage hikes are bad for business and cost jobs.

It's the same with health care. House Republicans desperately want the political cover of a GOP "patients' bill of rights." A bipartisan measure to grant enrollees in managed-care plans greater leverage over insurers and health-maintenance organizations passed the House 10 months ago. The Senate approved its own version in June but has refused to compromise. The result: It looks like R.I.P. for HMO reform.

The GOP is in the same muddle over Medicare prescription-drug benefits. In June, the House passed a bill modeled on a plan drafted by two influential Senators, Republican Bill Frist of Tennessee and Democrat John Breaux of Louisiana. But Lott blocked a Senate vote on that measure. When Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.)--who is in his own close reelection race--floated a compromise, Senate leaders killed it.

NOT AMUSED. Lott isn't totally intransigent. He may back a bill that would temporarily provide grants to states that offer a drug benefit for low-income seniors. That mirrors a four-year-grant proposal unveiled by GOP standard-bearer George W. Bush on Sept. 5. The idea: to provide a limited drug benefit while Congress attempts to reform Medicare. But since House Republicans favor a permanent fix, Lott's gambit may not break the stalemate.

Business lobbyists who are watching this intramural tussle are not amused. "There is no interaction, no strategy, no endgame," fumes one corporate rep. They see House and Senate Democrats relentlessly focused on their core issues of education, health care, and seniors' drug benefits--a rare example of discipline by a habitually unruly party that now smells blood in November.