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Lack of Democratic Support Imperils Term-Limits Bill

By Kenneth J. Cooper
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 1995; Page A04

The campaign promise of many House Republicans to pass a constitutional amendment imposing congressional term limits is in danger because GOP leaders are having trouble attracting Democratic support.

A predominantly Republican group of lawmakers yesterday tried to jump-start the effort, but leaders on both sides said Republicans are unlikely to secure enough Democratic support to reach the two-thirds vote in the House to pass a constitutional amendment.

Republicans working on the issue estimated that 90 to 100 Democrats would be required to reach the two-thirds majority. "Ninety to 100 Democrats? I'd be very surprised if 90 to 100 Democrats voted for term limits in the House," said Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.), one of six Democrats at the news conference. "I think there are 15 to 20 Democrats who could vote for term limits."

House Republicans appear solidly behind a constitutional change to limit terms, which would obliterate the longtime congressional tradition that equates seniority with legislative power. But there are disagreements even within GOP ranks about how long is long enough to be a "citizen legislator": 6, 8 or 12 years.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said he supports a limit of 12 years but would oppose a six-year limit, which 15 of 22 states with such limits have embraced for their own congressional delegations. The question of whether states can impose term limits on their federal lawmakers is pending at the Supreme Court.

"A six-year learning curve is just too short," said Gingrich, who was elected in 1978. "I don't know that I'm all that smart, but as hard as I worked at it, I didn't get it in six years."

Congressional term limits have passed in every state where they have been on the ballot with an average of 64 percent of the vote. Despite that level of popularity, term limits have not topped lists of voter concerns in public opinion surveys.

Although all the "Contract With America" promised was the first House vote ever on term limits, probably to be scheduled in late March, some activist supporters have come to expect congressional approval. What appears more likely is political posturing of the sort that has given Congress a reputation for inaction.

Democratic leaders plan to seek a vote on unspecified term limits that would be retroactive -- requiring the ouster of senior members of both parties -- in an effort to put in doubt Republicans' sincerity.

"I don't think {the public's} expectation is we have to wait 12 years for term limits to go into effect," said Laura Nichols, spokeswoman for Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "They are demanding action now."

Retroactive term limits would almost certainly fail in the House, but could give Democrats political cover. Republicans would almost as certainly blame Democrats for blocking a politically popular amendment.

"If it doesn't pass, the story is going to be we didn't pass term limits, and it ain't going to be because of Republicans," a GOP aide said.

At the crowded news conference that also featured conservative columnist George F. Will, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) announced the formation of "Team 290," an evolving bipartisan group of House members committed to voting for whichever of the 6-year, 8-year or 12-year limits can pass. The 290 refers to exactly two-thirds of the 435-member House.

"Twelve is good, and eight is better, but six is best," said Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who has proposed a six-year limit.

McCollum said the 12-year limit he advocates has the best chance of approval: "I think virtually all six-year supporters will support 12 years, but that's not true the other way around."

A total of 59 lawmakers, 53 Republicans and six Democrats, joined Team 290 by signing two large charts listing every House member. The public signing recalled endorsement of the Contract With America on the Capitol steps last September.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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