Shunted aside and frequently ignored by their president, House Republicans got their revenge last week, orchestrating a mutiny on tax-overhaul legislation and serving notice that they will insist on being treated as major players in the political dramas of Capitol Hill.
The Republican rebellion, led by some of President Reagan's most loyal soldiers, focused on a single issue, and may yet be turned around this week. But regardless of the outcome, the revolt was fed by years of perceived slights and a long-nurtured sense among the House GOP that the White House is more interested in working with their chamber's Democratic majority and the Senate's dominant Republicans than with them.
"It's not an act of petty revenge," Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) said. "But certainly there was a strong feeling that we had been ignored and rolled too many times and this was the time to make a stand."
Added a high-ranking Democrat, "We hear it all the time: They constantly get ignored while the White House pays attention to the majority party in each house. Well, they finally found the right combination to get even. They found a bill where their votes made all the difference."
House consideration of tax-overhaul legislation -- President Reagan's No. 1 domestic priority -- was blocked Wednesday in a surprise move led by the Republicans. In a humiliating defeat for Reagan, all but 14 of the 182 members of his party joined 59 Democrats to prevent consideration of tax-overhaul measures.
The White House has worked feverishly since then to reverse the loss and will try again this week, but administration officials admit it has been the toughest of political struggles to get their own Republicans to reconsider. GOP lawmakers had shot warning flares of discontent over the tax bill for weeks, saying it was produced without their input by the Democratic-controlled Ways and Means Committee, ran counter to Reagan's "pro-family" and fairness goals for tax revision and could not be supported by many of them. Republicans were angry that top Treasury Department officials had gone "over our heads," as one Republican put it, to work with the Ways and Means Democrats.
But Reagan endorsed the bill anyway, saying it was necessary to send some legislation to the Republican-led Senate to keep the tax-overhaul process going.
For many GOP lawmakers this followed an all too familiar pattern that began after the 1982 elections when they lost 26 House seats and with them the effective working majority of Republicans and conservative Democrats that had dominated the House for two years of Reagan's first term.
"We were consulted more in the first two years. We were living with David Stockman," said one high-ranking Republican, referring to the former Office of Management and Budget director who plotted Reagan's successful budget battles. "We provided the backbone for the Senate to follow, and the administration worked with us."
But since the 1982 elections, the Democrats have reasserted control over the House, leaving few opportunities for Republicans to shape events. The White House has turned to the Republican-dominated Senate to lead its fights.
As a result, communication between the White House and House Republicans lessened. It diminished further with the reshuffling of White House jobs after Reagan's 1984 reelection that led to Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan and White House chief of staff James A. Baker III swapping positions. Members of both parties said Regan is much more aloof from Congress than Baker had been.
The result has been fewer telephone calls from the White House, fewer informal meetings at the White House with the top leaders of the House GOP, lawmakers said.
Several lawmakers complained that letters sent to the White House asking for meetings or for a response received cursory acknowledgment. When a group of conservative GOP lawmakers, normally strong supporters of Reagan, sent him a letter several weeks ago asking Reagan to abandon the Ways and Means bill, they got "no significant" response, according to Weber, an originator of the letter.
When lawmakers supporting import restrictions asked for a meeting with Reagan to discuss the issue, they were turned down.
Rep. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said she finally had a direct discussion with Reagan on the issue when he called to try to persuade her to change her "no" vote last week on whether to take up the tax bill.
While these may seem like less than momentous lapses, lawmakers said, they are indicative of the lack of interest and effort by the White House.
"There's no stroking going on, no calling you up and asking you what you think," said one Republican, adding that this has irritated many House Republicans and left the White House without an effective barometer of the Republican mood.
At the same time, on several more significant issues this year, such as the MX intercontinental ballistics missile, aid to rebels fighting the Nicaragua government and the recently approved legislation mandating a balanced budget by 1991, communication frequently has not been much better.
In the first two cases, the admininstration ignored the strong advice of the House Republican leadership and suffered defeat, only later agreeing to the strategy proposed by the House GOP.
On the balanced budget, House Republican leaders were not consulted before Reagan came out in support of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings proposal. And when House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), hoping to embarrass the Democrats, recently tried to amend a Democratic-drafted omnibus spending bill to bring it in line with the cuts proposed in Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, administration officials publicly came out against any amendments without having warned him. The "sandbagging," as one Republican put it, clearly irritated the normally easy-going Michel and others.
Given this recent history, the administration's handling of the tax-overhaul bill, and its decision to work closely with Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), came as no surprise, GOP members said last week.
But the degree to which Republicans felt shut out of the process was more extreme than usual, lawmakers said.
"They early on cut out everyone who ever talked about tax reform," Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said. "Later they cut out all the Republicans on Ways and Means. They thought they could work for six months with Rostenkowski and then six hours with us and that would be enough," even though many Republicans, including the House GOP leadership, strongly made it clear that the Ways and Means bill would hurt too many traditional Republican constituencies and was unacceptable.
"In our lifetime this will probably be the only chance we have to address this issue. We should at least be granted the courtesy of being accommodated on some of our concerns," Snowe said.
When the administration chose not to heed the warnings on the bill and Reagan began to lobby for votes, the stage was set for the confrontation with the House Republicans and the normally compliant GOP leadership.
Administration officials acknowledged after the vote last week that they made mistakes in handling the bill and are trying to recover now by major negotiations with GOP leaders and the troops, including a personal visit to Congress Monday by the president. But the officials said that for the most part they had had few alternatives in the months the legislation was being assembled and prepared for a vote.
"These guys the Republicans haven't liked tax reform from the beginning," one high White House official said.
But said Weber, "A simple lack of communication is what is the cause of what happened. If they had had systematic communication with the Republican leaders and the Republicans on Ways and Means it might have been different. They probably would've had the numbers they needed."