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Term-Limit Pledges Are Coming Due

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 1999; Page A1

When it came to term limits, Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.) was a true believer.

As a member and for a time president of the Jacksonville City Council, she championed a limit of two four-year terms for the council, which voters approved in 1991. In municipal elections later this year, 12 of the 19 council members are barred from running for reelection because of the limit.

When Fowler first ran for Congress in 1992, she promised to serve only four terms. "Eight is Enough" was her rallying cry and the slogan of an organization that successfully backed a state constitutional amendment limiting the terms of Florida state legislators to eight years. In 2000, more than half the members of the Florida House and more than half the state senators who are up for reelection will not be allowed to seek another term.

Fowler's eight years are also up in 2000, but the proposition of term limits, it seems, is no longer as simple and straightforward as she once saw it: Fowler is actively considering running for a fifth term next year.

Six years after the GOP seized control of the House, in part on the strength of the popular term-limits issue, Fowler is not the only Republican who is having second thoughts. Another is Rep. George R. Nethercutt (Wash.), who promised to serve only three terms during his successful 1994 campaign to oust House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.), head of the House Republican Conference and the only black Republican in Congress, also made a three-term pledge.

Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) will keep her three-term promise in 2000, but she said recently that does not necessarily mean she won't run for Congress again in 2002.

In all, 10 House members all but one a Republican promised to make this their final term in Congress. The Democrat, Rep. Martin T. Meehan (Mass.), also is thinking about junking his three-term pledge.

The indecision of Fowler and Nethercutt reflects a growing ambivalence among many Republicans toward a cause they once embraced enthusiastically and made part of their "Contract With America," the centerpiece of 1994 House Republican campaigns across the country. Last year one of the early converts, Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), first elected in 1992 when he promised to serve only three terms, broke ranks and easily won reelection to a fourth term. He plans to run again in 2000.

"He's in a position to do a lot of good for the district," McInnis's press secretary, William Bos, said in defending the decision. "There was a bit of learning experience for him in Congress. He did underestimate the value of experience."

"The truth is term limits doesn't pull very well," Jill Schroeder, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in voicing the new GOP view of the issue. "It's way down in exit polls. It sounds good, but people like their members."

Politics also may explain this attitude. The GOP now enjoys a precarious six-seat majority in the House, where in the 1998 elections incumbents enjoyed a 98.5 percent reelection rate. Most of the party turnover last year occurred in districts in which the incumbent did not seek reelection. The six Republicans who are promising to keep their pledge to leave Congress could make life a lot more difficult for their party.

"The political reality is that with a six-seat margin between the two parties the fiercest, bloodiest fight is going to be over these open seats," said Erik Smith, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Smith said Democratic strategists already are targeting the districts of retiring, self-term-limited Reps. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jack Metcalf (R-Wash.) and will "take a hard look" at two others the districts of retiring Reps. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) and Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.). If Nethercutt decides not to seek reelection because of his term-limit pledge, his district will be added to the target list, Smith said.

The uncertainty about whether to keep a term-limits pledge is also part of an increasingly bitter split in the movement. On one side is U.S. Term Limits, the advocacy group that is pressing candidates to sign a pledge to serve only three terms and claims to be preparing a $20 million "education campaign" on the issue in the 2000 elections.

Last week the group began broadcasting radio and television ads in Nethercutt's district on the subject of broken promises and truth-telling in politics, including excerpts showing George Bush's "no new taxes" presidential campaign pledge and President Clinton's finger-waving denial of a sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky. "Will George Nethercutt be next?" the ads ask.

In 1995 the Supreme Court ruled that congressional terms could be limited only by a constitutional amendment. The House has voted on an amendment several times but fallen short of the two-thirds support necessary for passage. As a result, said Paul Jacob, who heads U.S. Term Limits, the organization has shifted its strategy from backing an amendment to concentrating on getting candidates to take the three-term pledge and targeting those who do not, including onetime avowed term-limit supporters.

"We've always wanted term limits as an amendment to turn Congress into a citizen legislature," Jacob said. "What we've come to realize is we're going to have to turn Congress into a citizen legislature first by getting people to come to Washington as citizen legislators and to stay citizen legislators."

"A constitutional amendment is unimportant to us," he added. "At this point it is a fraud. The amendment has been a dodge. It's been a way for career politicians to try to connect with the public on this issue without having to do anything."

But to Cleta Mitchell, general counsel of the Term Limits Legal Institute, this strategy is "absurd." She argues that if Republicans lose control of the House in 2000, the term-limits movement will lose its most important achievement the three-term limit on House committee chairmen that the new GOP majority imposed when it came to power after the 1994 elections and that is due to take effect in the next Congress.

"We risk losing the one thing we have achieved," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said she has personally urged Fowler and Nethercutt to forget their campaign promises and run for another term. "If they leave they're likely to be replaced by people who don't support term limits," she said. "When you have so much at stake as you have here, with the balance of the majority hanging on these individual decisions, I do think it makes absolutely no sense for these people to walk away."

Fowler insists she still believes in term limits but thinks it should be 12 years in the House, not the eight years she imposed on herself and helped bring about on the Jacksonville City Council and in the Florida legislature. Unlike Nethercutt, she does not have to worry about her solidly Republican district falling into Democratic hands and said if she does run again it will be for only one more term.

What has changed, Fowler said, was her election in November as vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, making her the highest-ranking woman and the only Floridian in the House GOP leadership.

"It does give my district and my state a voice," she said, voicing an argument similar to one made by term-limit critics who contend the device artificially deprives voters of the services of elected representatives just as they are reaching positions of enhanced power.

Fowler said she will be guided by her constituents' wishes, a formula that aides to Nethercutt and Watts said they also will follow. Tom Slade, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said that even before Fowler's election to the House leadership, some of her Jacksonville backers were discussing ways around her 1992 four-terms-and-out pledge. Slade is among those who publicly have urged Fowler to run for another term.

"I thought that the benefit to the party and to Congress and her district far outweighed the commitment she made under circumstances that are entirely different than what she is confronted with now," Slade said.

But there are some dissenters. One of them is John Crescimbeni, a Democrat who is in the final months of his second term on the Jacksonville City Council. He recalled that when the City Council first rejected a term-limits measure, Fowler was instrumental in getting him and others involved in a petition drive that forced the issue onto the 1991 ballot.

"I've heard some of my colleagues express complete astonishment over Ms. Fowler's suggestion that she may seek another term," Crescimbeni said. "They've said, 'Gee, we have to leave the council, we're being forced off the council, because of something she helped lead the charge on.'"

"I would be disappointed if she chose for any reason to run for another term," he added. "She ran a pretty convincing campaign in 1991."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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