In House, Tumult Leaves GOP's Future Cluttered With Obstacles
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 21, 1998; Page A17
As House Republicans survey the wreckage of one the most tumultuous weeks in their recent history, they will find little cause for optimism. Prospects for a Happy New Year, both politically and legislatively, are dim at best, perhaps even nonexistent.
Republicans would like to move forward with Social Security and Medicare reform and enact a major tax cut, goals that even in their conception may have been overly ambitious for a party that will hold a six-vote majority in the next Congress.
But that was two weeks ago. Now the Republicans must try to deal with a White House whose occupant they have just impeached. They must try to win cooperation from a Democratic Party both angry about how impeachment was handled by the GOP leadership and confident that it can capitalize politically to take back the House in 2000.
They must try to smooth the internal factionalism that all too often makes their party caucus look like a 200-member dysfunctional family. And they must try to soldier on after the loss of two speakers in less than two months emptied their cupboard of leaders with any national stature.
"I think at some point the Republicans will try to shrug this off and keep on moving, especially on Social Security and taxes," said GOP lobbyist Mark Isakowitz. "But when they reach their hand out, I don't know if anyone will want to take it."
The would-be helmsman is Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), heir apparent to the speakership that Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) on Saturday declined to assume because of past marital infidelities, only seven weeks after Livingston forced Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to quit. Hastert is known to his GOP colleagues as an engaging, straightforward man, and to his Democratic colleagues hardly at all.
Still, given next year's prospects, Hastert may have as good a chance not to fail as anyone. Even Livingston, an order of magnitude above his GOP colleagues in stature, was starting to see his prestige erode as Democrats voiced doubts about his ability to stand up to his party's conservatives.
Hastert, his colleagues said, at least ought to be able to keep the peace. "He's a workhorse, not a show horse," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "He's not going to be the guy in front of the microphone, but he will be the guy people go to when they need a project, when they need a bill on the floor, when they need someone that knows the process."
Hastert has added health care, new anti-drug policies and "easing the tax burden on the backs of senior citizens" to the GOP's Social Security/Medicare reform/tax cut agenda, which in the current climate looks more like a wish list than an enactable program. There also will be pressure to get annual spending bills done on time to avoid a repeat of this year's fiasco, when most of them were jammed into one massive, pork-laden $520 billion bill as time ran out in October.
While the House Republicans probably could muster votes to pass tax and Social Security legislation, both measures would face steep hurdles in the Senate, where there are more cautious moderates. And the Republicans can expect no support from President Clinton.
"I don't see how you can meet with the president in the morning to ask for his cooperation, then impeach him in the afternoon," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), who as the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee would be in the thick of any major Social Security or tax legislation. "Why in the hell would the president put in a Social Security program the Republicans will take a shot at?"
But Ways and Means spokesman Ari Fleischer argued that the two parties can get behind conciliators such as Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) and move ahead on the agenda. "This town has always had an eerie ability to operate on an ethical track and a legislative track," Fleischer said. "It's in the president's interest and Congress's interest to go down the legislative track at the same time. It's in the president's and Congress's self-interest."
Still, Thomas Scully, an Office of Management and Budget official in the Bush administration and currently a hospital industry official, predicted "hand-to-hand combat" from the beginning of Congress with no letup "until after the next election," when the cast of characters will change.
"It's pretty hard to have any major initiative in this [upcoming] Congress with votes so narrow," Scully said. "And it's awfully tough when there's no relationship between the president and the Hill and I can't see how there would be."
Democrats are not likely to be overly friendly, either. In many ways, the loss of Livingston, viewed as a straight-shooting pragmatist without ideological baggage, hit them just as hard as it did the GOP.
"I was real optimistic with Bill Livingston as speaker," said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.), a conservative Democrat who voted for three articles of impeachment and the ranking minority member on the Agriculture Committee. "I thought he'd take the politics out of farm policy. Now, I don't know."
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), a close friend of Livingston, spoke about how "the whole process has been bittered up," and blamed both parties for escalating hostilities for 45 years since the McCarthy era.
"When Livingston has a friendship across the aisle with me, he's chastised for that," Obey said. "There are supposed to be countervailing forces around here, but in this atmosphere, people believe only the worst about each other."
And as chief deputy whip, Hastert, at least in the early going, will be regarded as an appendage of Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), currently the most powerful person in the House and a man Democrats detest as the architect of Clinton's impeachment. Hastert, for purposes of short-term verbal abuse, could be the next best thing.
The Democrats also hope to reclaim the House they lost in 1994. After shrinking the GOP margin from 11 seats to six in the November elections, they are figured to be well within striking distance for 2000. "It will be tough out there," said Isakowitz. "The president is bitter and owes a lot to the congressional Democrats, and the Democrats are starting to pick out curtains for the speaker's office."
Staff writer John E. Yang contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company