GOP in a Mood to Compromise
By Guy Gugliotta and Eric Pianin
Having failed to remove Clinton from office, GOP lawmakers are expressing optimism that they can find common cause with the White House on issues such as Social Security, taxes and national defense. And in a striking departure from the recent past, many rank-and-file Republicans appear to be abandoning ideological confrontation in favor of a newfound pragmatism.
"A lot of Republicans have been changed by being slapped in the face a couple of times," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.). "We're a fairly solid force now, and the pure ideologues are fewer in number."
The new mood became clear last week in interviews with about three dozen House and Senate Republicans, who got back to work after the end of Clinton's impeachment trial. Many of those interviewed said they were encouraged by what they saw as Clinton's willingness to meet them in the middle, putting a Social Security plan on the table and signaling conditional support for the GOP's long-sought anti-ballistic missile defense system -- despite opposition from many Democrats.
At the same time, a strong streak of self-preservation was at work. In a post-impeachment world, with small majorities and a battle for control of Congress looming in 2000, many Republicans have taken a cold look at their options and decided that to survive and prosper they must achieve legislative results, requiring them to abandon inflammatory rhetoric.
"We need to find places where we can agree with the president," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), a frequent firebrand in the past. "The American people look at us like we were Bosnia, and they're sick of the fighting."
Many Republicans believe that Clinton needs them as much as they need him. "There's a common interest between Republicans and the administration to get some things done, but the Democrats may not share it," said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.). "We're in for a window of opportunity, but as we get closer to the election cycle, the window closes."
Other obstacles loom. Many hard-core conservatives worry that the GOP may end up abandoning the legislative field to the Democrats, and in the process lose the House and perhaps the Senate because of a failure to make clear their doctrinal differences.
"We will work with colleagues on the other side of the aisle, but the core will be our agenda," said Rep. David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.), leader of a group of House conservatives who call themselves the Conservative Action Team. "The critical thing is not to fall into the trap of saying we have to get something done, so let's pick out some Democratic bills like raising the minimum wage or campaign finance reform."
Republicans also appear, at times, profoundly ambivalent about working with Clinton.
Just after the impeachment, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he would have trouble trusting Clinton and suggested that the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal may be "only a chapter in our national nightmare." He later told reporters, "We're going to work together . . . in the Congress and with the administration, to do what the American people expect of us."
Nowhere is this double-take more apparent than in the emerging debate over Social Security. On the surface, the GOP has heaped criticism on Clinton's proposals, focusing on their vagueness and his plan to invest part of the Social Security funds in the stock market.
But scratch the surface, and it is apparent that many Republicans regard Clinton's willingness to countenance the private investment of retirement funds as a courageous break with what they view as the demagogic past -- when the GOP was routinely pilloried for threatening to "touch" Social Security.
Gilchrest called Clinton's State of the Union speech "breaking the crystal chandelier"; Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) praised Clinton for speaking "the right words"; and Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) saw a "once-in-a-decade opportunity" for meaningful structural reform.
"The fact the president has put Social Security reform on the table . . . took some courage," added conservative Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). "His proposal is not the answer at all, but the proposal is the beginning of a dialogue on a high level that we never had before."
Republicans generally agree with Clinton's desire to set aside 62 percent of projected budget surpluses for Social Security. The president also proposed investing a small part of the program's trust fund in stocks and providing seed money for taxpayers to open their own retirement accounts.
While the plan's basic premise appears to enjoy widespread support, many Republicans complain that it is budgetary gimmickry. To keep the system solvent, they say, will require fundamental changes in the program itself -- such as extending the retirement age and limiting benefits.
"A lot depends on the willingness of the White House to make hard decisions and put all its cards on the table," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a moderate. "The more I look at the president's Social Security program, the more I believe it's a shell game. That's not an auspicious beginning."
While both parties have vowed to make Social Security overhaul their priority, the Republicans have yet to offer a plan of their own, and many in the party question the wisdom of getting too far out in front on an issue that has hurt them politically in the past.
"In an ideal world, the Republicans should trot out a detailed alternative, have a debate and try to find common ground," said English. "But Republicans have been so demagogued by Democrats, probably we need to feel our way forward."
Added Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.): "We'd really like it if [the Democrats] would take the lead."
The tax debate, like the debate on Social Security, appeared to be on a confrontational trajectory until indifference from the GOP rank and file stymied a proposed 10 percent tax cut that offered the greatest benefit to wealthier taxpayers. In fact, many Republicans saw looming disaster if they had allowed Democrats and the administration, once again, to portray them as the "party of the rich."
"We're not going to fall into that trap," Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said. "A gigantic tax cut? That's not going to happen."
Instead, GOP moderates have been gathering support for "targeted" tax cuts, an approach strongly preferred by the administration. Favorite candidates include elimination of the so-called "marriage penalty" and estate taxes and a reduction of the capital gains tax.
But while lawmakers tout the traditional GOP wisdom of using cuts as an economic stimulus, they also for the first time in recent memory appear keenly receptive to the possibility of income redistribution, an attitude that is producing some jaw-dropping statements.
"The working poor and middle class are the ones who have to have a tax cut," said Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of the conservatives whose unbending orthodoxy had given the House GOP leadership fits for the last five years.
"Those who are making $40,000 or less are paying more proportionately," Coburn said. "We should direct the first benefit to those who most need it. Makes me sound like a Democrat, doesn't it?"
Targeted tax cuts is a sale many Republicans think they can make to the White House, but only if they can sell it to themselves, because many conservatives would oppose any tax cuts until the government stops counting Social Security funds as part of the budget surplus.
"I think we've got to fence off the Social Security trust fund, then deal with the rest," said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). "We don't want Congress spending that money, and we certainly don't want the administration to spend it."
And just as "saving" Social Security is central to the two parties, both also favor major spending increases for defense. By supporting military pay raises and an anti-ballistic missile system, Clinton has made a start, GOP lawmakers say, but much more spending will be needed than the president envisions.
"I'm worried about losing our experienced personnel . . . and [worried about] . . . shortages of parts," explained Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.), whose district includes Fort Knox. Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) added: "You're going to see us coming together in a bipartisan way to beef up the military budget."
To accomplish these ambitious projects, some Republicans concede that they may have to raise the caps limiting spending increases -- a heretical posture until this year. "The whole Congress, on both sides of the aisle, seems to be moving towards some kind of major reevaluation of what these spending lids mean," said Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
But in this, as in everything, today's GOP is of two minds: "This could be a bait-and-switch issue [to] use defense to open the door for everything," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.). "We are not going to support long-term national security by busting the budget process."
Staff writer Edward Walsh contributed to this report.
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