Budget Negotiations Seen as Key to Gingrich's Downfall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 1998; Page A13
For many House Republicans, the seeds of their displeasure with Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) were planted last month during budget negotiations that gave Democrats key public relations victories and undermined the GOP message of fiscal conservatism.
By failing to take control of the budget process, Gingrich allowed Democrats to gain the upper hand and use the negotiations to tout their agenda of hiring 100,000 more teachers, saving Social Security and adopting a patients' bill of rights. In the end, Democrats won major spending increases and Republicans failed to get the significant tax cut they desired.
GOP anger only increased after Republicans lost five seats in Tuesday's elections.
Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), a GOP moderate leader, said that voters complained to him about the spending bill "that nobody read and where the president got virtually everything he wanted."
Moreover, Republicans complained that most of the key spending and policy decisions were made behind closed doors by Gingrich, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and a few senior White House officials, and that as a result, most legislators voted on a bill that they had not read.
"That we waited so long gave the president maximum leverage," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (Ind.), a conservative GOP leader. "That we couldn't figure out what was in the bill made us look a little less than sophisticated back home."
Although Gingrich could point to last year's balanced budget and tax cut deal with the Clinton administration as a crowning GOP achievement, some of his worst moments as speaker have stemmed from faulty miscalculations on budget strategy. When he threatened to shut down the government in 1995 unless the president went along with the Republicans' agenda of steep spending cuts and major tax reductions, Clinton refused to bend and the Republicans took most of the public's blame for the two partial government shutdowns that resulted.
This year, the budget process should have been relatively cut-and-dried because last year's multi-year budget agreement with the White House had spelled out spending levels and set a course for gradual tax relief. But in an effort to energize the GOP's conservative base in an election year, Gingrich and House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) attempted to chart a much more conservative course of spending and tax cuts and controversial policy initiatives than the more moderate Senate and the White House were willing to countenance.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.), who forced Gingrich's hand by announcing yesterday that he would seek the speakership later this month, has long criticized what he viewed as Gingrich's unpredictable – and at times self-defeating – handling of spending and budget issues. Livingston has frequently complained that Gingrich encouraged or supported conservative policy riders to the annual spending bills that invariably invited vetoes and slowed the appropriations process.
"I'm a politician who understands politics is the art of the possible," Livingston said in an interview last night shortly before Gingrich announced his decision not to seek reelection as speaker. "I'm not one who simply wants to run into walls and wonder what happened, and then run right back into the wall. And I firmly believe that if we operate this place smoothly and cleanly and efficiently, the conservative agenda can be passed even with a six-vote margin, and it will be a lot better than if the Democrats take control."
Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), who announced yesterday that he will challenge House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), complained that GOP ineptness in negotiating the $500 billion spending deal last month "exacerbated and underscored the problems" facing his party.
"We have to organize, schedule, coordinate in an effort to avoid the train wrecks that we've had . . . with government shutdowns, with year-end, budget-busting omnibus bills that are negotiated by three people in a room spending $520 billion," Largent said. "That is clearly wrong."
Republican disarray played into the hands of the House Democrats, who pursued what House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) called a "Braveheart" strategy of saving their fiercest assault on the GOP for the last.
"We stayed [in session] 10 days more while the Republicans were trying to figure out how to get a budget passed," said Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "That gave us an additional 10 days to be able to talk about education, Social Security and the issues that are important to our voters."
Gingrich and other House leaders had hoped that the final important piece of business this year would be the vote to pursue impeachment proceedings against Clinton in the Monica S. Lewinsky affair. But by delaying important decisions on spending, Republicans enabled Democrats to have the last word. Ironically, the Republicans – not the Democrats – originally proposed funding for 100,000 additional school teachers. But by the time Gingrich gaveled to a close the final session of the House last month, Clinton and the Democrats were claiming most of the credit. Republicans, meanwhile, were boasting of additional funding for missile defense and military intelligence, and a victory over the administration on an obscure but politically important issue of how to conduct the next census.
"Those are hardly topics for dinner-table conversation," Souder said.
Aides close to Gingrich insisted that the miscues over the budget and spending bill had little direct effect on the outcome of Tuesday's election. But they acknowledged that members had legitimate concerns that Gingrich was again outmaneuvered by the White House in budget talks.
"The omnibus spending bill became a symbol for some of no tax cuts," said a House GOP leadership aide.
In contrast to last year's bipartisanship over budgeting, Gingrich this year altered the dynamic by cutting a deal with his party's conservative wing, promising confrontations with Clinton and the Democrats over abortion, funding for the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, the environment and scores of other issues, provided that the conservatives could muster enough votes to pass the spending bills. But the conservatives – including Rep. David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.), Largent, Souder and others now criticizing Gingrich – couldn't deliver the votes to pass the most costly and controversial spending bills.
Those eight bills were ultimately rolled into a monstrous 40-pound, 4,000-page spending package that exceeded spending caps by more than $21 billion and was rushed through late last month with little scrutiny from members.
Staff writer Charles R. Babcock contributed to this report.
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