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Subdued GOP Resumes Lead With Eye to Past

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 8, 1997; Page A09

For a party that retained control of Capitol Hill for the first time in seven decades, the Republicans opened the 105th Congress yesterday with far more questions about themselves than answers.

The headiness and self-confidence that marked the opening of the legislative session two years ago were gone, victims of the fallout over last year's government shutdown, the defeat of Robert J. Dole at the hands of President Clinton and the controversy over the ethical problems of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

In marked contrast to 1995, the Republicans begin the new year with far less consensus on their agenda, more open divisions among their factions and with leaders — both in Washington and the states — either tarnished, untested or little known on the national stage.

"We have lots of ideas, we've turned the government around, but as a party we're profoundly unready to be a governing party," said former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination last year. "The voters understood that and wouldn't turn the [whole] government over to us."

The Republicans of the 104th Congress arrived with a sense of mission and the zeal of missionaries.

"They came to town in January 1995 sweeping all before them, the conquering heroes with justified sense of satisfaction that they could truly change America," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "Now in 1997, speaking of the House, they came back, barely keeping their majority and with a wounded leader. I don't know of a greater example of how things can change in this town."

Republicans in both chambers are more tentative about the future, wrestling with how to balance a desire to force Clinton to take the lead on potentially difficult issues such as balancing the budget or reforming Medicare and their eagerness to reassert themselves as the party leading a dramatic reversal in the role of government.

Steve Moore of the Cato Institute said that "the big question about this Congress is, are they just being strategic, did they learn from the mistakes they made in the 104th Congress, or have they really recoiled from their whole agenda?"

Clinton has successfully coopted Republican themes and issues, neutralizing advantages the party once had on such issues as crime and welfare reform. Some Republican and Democratic strategists say the Gingrich controversy now may cost the GOP their claim as the reform or "good government" party.

"I think that's what we've seen the last 60 days on this issue," said Steve Lombardo, a Republican pollster.

Clinton promised the most ethical administration in history, only to find himself mired in one scandal after another. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin agreed that "nobody has the high ground any longer" but said "that's something the Republicans made a deliberate decision to concede" with yesterday's vote.

Some Republicans see little lasting damage from past mistakes or the turmoil over Gingrich's ethics — particularly those in the Senate.

"From my perspective it hasn't slowed us down at all," said Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), a close ally of Gingrich when both served in the House. "We are pursuing the establishment of a positive, forward-looking agenda."

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), another Gingrich ally from his House days, said that once Congress gets "past this distraction that Democrats in the House have created," he is "very upbeat about our possibilities" in the next two years.

"It really is going to rest with the president on how much we get done," he said. "This could be a very historic couple of years if the president is willing to play along."

Other Republicans worry that the ethics controversy could slow progress on legislation in the House.

"I don't want to see our schedule built around ethics votes," said Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.).

William Kristol, a GOP strategist and editor of the opinion magazine the Weekly Standard, described this period as "the winter of the Republican discontent" in an article urging the party to rally behind both Gingrich and an aggressive conservative agenda.

In an interview, Kristol called the nervousness within party ranks over Gingrich "a sign of the disarray of the party" and not the cause of it.

"To be defeated by Clinton again was a blow," he said. "To have gotten 38 percent and 42 percent [of the vote] in successive presidential elections is a blow. And to have proclaimed a revolution, foolishly, and not to have had a revolution happen has caused them to overreact to a kind of timidity and even dispiritedness."

Kristol criticized Republicans for slamming on the brakes in reaction to past missteps, saying he fears that "the party has decided they shouldn't go anywhere. No speed is the favorite speed."

In some respects, the agenda favored by many Republicans remains similar to the one that shaped the Contract with America two years ago. But there are important differences now in how vigorously the party may pursue those policies.

Moore said Clinton largely won the definition of the balanced budget debate with his resistance to Republican policies on Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.

"The 104th Congress talked loudly and carried a small stick," he said. "Hopefully this Congress will walk softly and carry a big stick."

Some Republicans worry that their agenda of shrinking government and lowering taxes lacks the partisan punch of the Reagan years, pointing to Dole's notable lack of success with those issues.

"They're not as potent as they were," said Pete Wehner of Empowerment America, a Republican think tank.

To Alexander, the Republicans must make a significant turn to assure voters they can govern.

"We've mastered what we're against . . . We haven't learned to finish the sentence," he said.

Alexander credited Clinton with creating the most powerful metaphor of 1996, the bridge to the next century, and encouraged Republicans to go the president one better.

"To be a governing party, rather than a congressional party or a think tank party or a party of `aginners,' we have to say what's on the other side of the bridge."

That will be the party's test the next two years.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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