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Wright: The Speaker Has His Policies

August 16, 1987|Richard E. Cohen | Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal

WASHINGTON — An oppressively hot summer brought strange twists to the Capitol. While President Reagan and his Democratic critics stubbornly refused to confront the massive federal budget deficit, the stock market whooshed to record highs and reports from economic forecasters grew brighter. A Marine Corps officer testified about having taken over the nation's Middle East policy and members of both parties barely challenged his actions. More recent policy news added to the unpredictable climate:

House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) has become de facto , a temporary secretary of state for Central America. In hammering out a plan with President Reagan's endorsement--for a Nicaragua cease-fire between the Sandinistas and the contras , including a pledge for peace talks--Wright brought a new turn to the stalemate of U.S. policy in that region.

Wright also managed a neat political trick. He alarmed liberal Democrats who feared that he was playing into Reagan's hands on added military support for the contra rebels; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) first called the ploy "a sham from beginning to end." And Wright angered Republican stalwarts who thought their lame-duck chief might be selling out their cause. "We had the Democrats beat on contra aid and Jim Wright took the issue back," moaned a House GOP leader. "He's a brilliant politician."

Both sets of critics may be correct. Yet the best evidence of the ship of state having no rudder may be that Wright initially got both sides to suspend disbelief.

Who is Wright and how did he orchestrate what could be an international and domestic political coup?

The new Speaker, who has not made a notable public mark since he took over his post from Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) in January, fancies himself a foreign relations expert but he has little diplomatic experience. What the former Golden Gloves boxing champion has shown during 33 years in the House is a stubborn and often cerebral independence. Wright suffers as an impetuous loner, critics long have claimed, but even they concede that he is a quick study of issues and politics.

The contrast to his predecessor is striking. Although both Democratic leaders consistently opposed contra aid, Wright's Texas roots make him more sensitive to the domestic political problems posed by the Sandinista government in Managua. O'Neill would not have struck a deal with the President; his leadership style was to watch the consensus build in his party, not to innovate. Where O'Neill was the friendly priest who usually sought the views of his parishioners before acting, Wright is the archbishop who publicly announces doctrine and then listens while his minions tremble and try to explain why it cannot be attained.

Wright, for example, has repeatedly called this year for a tax increase, despite stern opposition from House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and many other politically worried Democrats.

"We don't want to continue indulging ourselves to each of our fantasies and putting it all on a credit card and sending it to the grandchildren," he told an interviewer. "That, to me, is not honest. I'd rather pay as we go. I'd rather pay taxes."

Compared to the unpopularity of hiking taxes, an attempt to restore order in Nicaragua and neighboring countries seems almost simple. For Wright, the process began in a late July meeting with Thomas G. Loeffler, a former House Republican from Texas; Reagan recently named Loeffler as coordinator of White House efforts to win renewed congressional funds for the contras .

While many GOP conservatives had grown euphoric over Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's congressional testimony, figuring it had turned the odds their way on the prospect for renewed aid this fall, Loeffler's head count showed otherwise. For months, Wright had been telling Reagan and his top advisers the same thing, that House support for the contras had slipped since last year's 221-209 vote of $100 million in military aid, and that the White House should seek a negotiated settlement with the Sandinistas.

When Loeffler then indicated the Administration's interest in a diplomatic route, including a recognition of Nicaraguan sovereignty, Wright leaped at the opportunity. The Speaker had been in private contact with Central American leaders and thought the time was right for a broad approach. And despite his recent partisan volleys with Reagan, Wright has often praised the exemplary bipartisan cooperation of 1950s, between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and another Speaker from Texas, Sam Rayburn.

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