House Republicans, smarting over their defeat in the bruising tax-revision battle and over a last-minute procedural fiasco that compounded the loss, met yesterday to vent their anger and assess the damage.
At a special meeting of the House Republican Conference that was described as "feisty but unified," GOP leaders defended their handling of the tax legislation, but acknowledged that they blundered in not calling for a recorded roll call on final passage of the measure.
Amid much confusion on the House floor late Tuesday night, the sweeping tax legislation was passed by an unrecorded voice vote because no one on the Republican side demanded a roll call.
One result of this was that several Republicans who were persuaded by President Reagan to help bring the bill to the floor, a critical preliminary step, were denied the chance to be recorded as voting against the measure on its merits. Many members wanted evidence of a "no" vote to take home to districts where the legislation was opposed.
"There is no revolt against the leadership, but there is real exasperation that members could not go on record on one of the most important votes of the year," said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa).
The two-hour meeting of the GOP conference was a fitting anticlimax to a legislative battle that pitted most House Republicans against not only the Democrats but their own party's White House.
Frustrated by what they saw as White House aloofness to their concerns, GOP lawmakers led a revolt last week that initially blocked the legislation but did succeed in obtaining the White House's attention. It also prompted an unusual Reagan journey to Capitol Hill, where he appealed to the House Republicans on Monday for support.
Republicans said much of the criticism over GOP strategy was directed at Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the conference, who is widely expected to seek the party's presidential nomination in 1988.
Earlier, the conference had instructed the Republican leadership to wage an all-out fight against the bill, but following Reagan's appeal Kemp switched sides and actively sought its passage.
"He's got to mend some fences," said Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), normally an ally of Kemp in the House.
A Republican leader, who asked not to be identified, said, "The feeling is Kemp was elected by the conference to represent them but let his own national aspirations interfere with that. It points up the difficulty of running for national office while holding a party office in the House. The two often conflict."
Kemp said following yesterday's meeting that he had defended his actions to his colleagues in the same terms he used on the House floor, asserting that Reagan's promise to veto tax legislation that doesn't meet minimum Republican demands was the key element in his decision to support the bill and keep the process alive.
"Motives are always suspect," he said in response to the charge of playing presidential politics, "but I did what I thought was right for the president and the party."
At yesterday's meeting, the Republicans watched a videotape replay of the climactic moment in the battle as Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) looked to the Republican side expecting a demand for a roll call, then declared the measure passed by voice vote. Most appeared to agree with Weber's assessment that O'Neill could not be faulted.
"We screwed up," Weber said of the GOP failure on the roll call..
O'Neill said yesterday that the Republicans appeared to have deliberately ducked a roll call, a charge the GOP denied. The Republican leadership "threw in the towel," O'Neill said.
Mike Johnson, a senior aide to House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), conceded that the losing battle against the tax bill and the roll call blunder had left "some ill feeling" in GOP ranks. Johnson said it was too soon to tell whether this would have any long-term impact on House Republicans.
However, Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) offered an immediate assessment of the state of the GOP in the House. Leaving yesterday's meeting early as colleagues were rehashing the tax battle, Goodling said, "I just told them we're a minority party because we're always talking about yesterday."