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House GOP on the Retreat

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  • By Juliet Eilperin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, February 6, 1999; Page A10

    WILLIAMSBURG, Feb. 5 A tough warning from their campaign chairman about an uncertain electoral future left House Republicans gathered here chastened and vowing to pursue a more focused legislative agenda in the coming months.

    In years past, the winter GOP retreat has often been a pep rally for the kind of messianic conservatism espoused by former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who was known for delivering inspiring speeches and exhorting his troops to follow an ambitious agenda.

    But in the wake of a political battering over impeachment and a sobering speech Thursday night from National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) who warned his colleagues that they are in danger of losing their narrow majority in two years GOP House members were talking about a more cautious agenda. That includes simply passing appropriations bills on time and accepting President Clinton's plans for reserving a big part of the budget surplus for shoring up Social Security.

    Even social conservatives, who have talked boldly in the past of abolishing federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, said they should settle for freezing spending at current levels.

    Rep. Mark Foley (Fla.), a moderate, welcomed the return to issues that fell within the realm of what he called "compassionate conservatism."

    "That means focusing on a few very good ones and shying away from some of the cranky ones," Foley said, adding that he was encouraged by the retreat's unusually large turnout nearly 180 GOP House members. "People recognize it's a lot more fun being in the majority, and if you want to be a part of the team you better be on the field."

    One of the more surprising themes that emerged today was some dissent over GOP leadership plans to press for a 10 percent, across-the-board income tax cut. Several representatives from across the Republican ideological spectrum said they were skeptical that a tax cut was needed, given the booming economy, and some worried the party might be handing Clinton an easy issue with which to attack them.

    "If Bill Clinton and the Senate were opposed to our modest tax cut plan last year, they're not going to approve our $400 billion package this year," said Rep. Joe Scarborough (Fla.), a conservative, who conveyed these concerns to party leaders. "The 10 percent tax cut can be as effective for us in 1999 as [GOP presidential nominee] Bob Dole's 15 percent tax cut was in 1996."

    Like several of his colleagues, Scarborough voiced alarm over House Democrats' jubilation this week, when Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) decided to remain in the House and mount a challenge to become speaker rather than seek the presidency.

    "Those people are focused and willing to do what it takes," Scarborough said. "Right now they're the hunters and we're the hunted. We have to turn things around."

    That was very much the message Republicans heard Thursday from Davis, who described a $3.7 million debt for the party's campaign committee and internal poll results showing the party losing ground to the Democrats. But Davis told his colleagues the party can retain the majority if it can articulate a coherent agenda; he received a standing ovation, and several members said they were heartened that the party leadership appeared to be moving to turn things around.

    Newly installed House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) echoed that admonition in his own remarks, telling his colleagues they need to put aside personal interests in an effort to produce legislative accomplishments.

    Though he has indicated he will work on a bipartisan basis, he has made several controversial scheduling decisions, dismaying reform advocates by postponing consideration of campaign finance reform and pushing for a vote next week on regulatory bills opposed by environmental groups and moderate Republicans.

    But Hastert said he plans to try to work with Gephardt and rank-and-file Democrats on a range of issues, such as Social Security, education, tax cuts and national defense.

    "These are the type of issues the American people want us to solve, and I think they're tired of people trying to politically jockey those issues for their own benefit," he said. "All people have heard is the impeachment issue for I don't know how long. We need to get to work as a Congress. We need to move forward, put our agenda out and start rolling it out."


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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