Yesterday's stunning House rejection of the Republican leadership's health care proposals provides the strongest evidence yet that the GOP has ceded the legislative agenda to the minority, yielding time and again to initiatives pushed by a combination of Democrats and rebellious, moderate Republicans.
Legislation that has dominated the House in recent months -- gun control, campaign finance reform, managed-care revisions and a looming increase in the minimum wage -- are traditionally Democratic issues. Meanwhile, the issue most strongly associated with Republicans -- sharply cutting taxes -- quickly faded when President Clinton vetoed the GOP-backed $792 billion tax reduction package last month.
Even Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush has shown little deference to his party's House leaders. He recently denounced their plan to delay tax credit payments to the working poor and depicted them as too negative and anti-government.
All this has rattled rank-and-file House Republicans, leaving some to concede that Democrats are virtually calling the shots and doing a better job of reading public sentiment.
"Could one argue the Democrats are driving the agenda in the House? Yes, but that could mean the Democrats have some ideas people back home seem to like," Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said yesterday.
Democrats can scarcely mask their pleasure with the woes of a House hierarchy that spearheaded Clinton's impeachment last December.
"The bills we're trying to pass are ones that are widely accepted and very popular with the American people," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) yesterday. "We are happy to finally get something done."
With only a five-seat House majority, it is hardly surprising that Republican leaders have struggled to win passage of contentious bills. But the GOP leadership has compounded its problems by taking a reactive approach on some issues: Many of the Republicans closely involved in the health care debate complained privately, for instance, that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) waited too long to throw his support behind what they considered to be a more palatable form of HMO regulation.
"I think they probably wished they would have gotten involved a lot sooner," Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said of the leadership.
More fundamentally, some analysts said, Republicans have stood by as Clinton and mainstream Democrats responded to a growing public appetite for HMO reforms, modest (if any) tax cuts and tighter restrictions on gun sales.
"Ultimately what is shaping this confrontation is the perception, even among the less ideologically extreme Republicans, that in fact the president has occupied the most favorable ground on the major issues that are up," said Thomas Mann, a congressional authority at the Brookings Institution.
As Clinton has pushed the Democratic Party toward the political center, Mann said, congressional Republicans were left with few high-profile issues except tax cuts. And this year, with the economy booming and unemployment at record lows, few voters are putting tax cuts atop their wish lists.
"The move to the center really came on issues of welfare and crime and balanced budgets," Mann added. Then, as the public grew increasingly unhappy with managed-care companies, he said, House Republicans were slow to react. "We've long known there was a strong majority for the Dingell approach to patients' rights," he said, referring to the Democratic-sponsored plan that House GOP leaders unsuccessfully tried to stop.
Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster with close ties to former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), said he was stunned by how many GOP House members voted for the Clinton-backed HMO measure yesterday.
"That says to me a lot of Republicans are trying to save themselves rather than save the party," Luntz said, "and that does not bode well for party unity next year."
Republican leaders say they are not being given enough credit for their successes this year. House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.) said in an interview that issues such as campaign finance reform and health care aside, the leadership had already racked up legislative victories on tax cuts and military and education spending matters.
"If one is comparing Democrats to Republicans, we're still ahead on the scoreboard, probably 20 to 3," Watts said. "Our big battle is to protect Social Security. I think we're still in very good shape."
To some extent, the leadership's decision to hold votes this fall on camapign finance reform, managed care and the minimum wage represents a calculated strategy to dispose of these issues by year's end, so they will not be caught up in election-year politics. Sanford said yesterday's action proved that Hastert is willing to hold votes on important issues even when he is unsure of victory.
"When the speaker took over, he said that he would entertain legislation from both sides of the aisle and would do so in a fair way, and he's kept his word," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery.
Just yesterday, for example, Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) announced that a group of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats had agreed on a plan to combine tax breaks with an increase in the minimum wage, and would introduce a bipartisan bill next week. The measure would boost the current $5.15-per-hour standard by a dollar over three years, according to informed sources. Lazio said it includes $35 billion in tax cuts, which amounts to a 2 to 1 ratio between tax relief and the cost of the increase to employers.
It remains unclear whether Democrats and liberal Republicans will accept the Lazio proposal. Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), the leading GOP advocate for a wage increase, said the plan "seems pretty cluttered to me."
But the announcement signaled that the House is likely to take up the thorny political issue before it adjourns for the year.