WASHINGTON — The House voted Wednesday to reject a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the service of members of Congress, dealing Republicans a major defeat on an issue that stirred American voters and helped propel the GOP to power last November.
With opponents arguing that the amendment would "dumb down" Congress and undermine the will of the majority in future elections, the measure failed to receive the 290 votes needed to amend the Constitution.
The count was 227 in favor of the measure and 204 opposed. Of opponents, 163 were Democrats, 40 were Republicans and one was an independent.
One of the most impassioned speeches in opposition came from a GOP leader, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), who argued that term limits would strip Congress of the experienced legislators it needs to handle the complex issues of the day.
"I won't concede to the angry, pessimistic populism that drives this movement because it is just dead wrong," said Hyde, who has served in Congress for 20 years. "America needs leaders, it needs statesmen and it needs giants--and you don't get them out of the phone book."
Despite his opposition and that of other Republicans, who hold a 230-204 majority in the House, GOP leaders sought to pin the blame on Democrats.
"We could declare which party is anti-term limits and it won't be Republican," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "Give us 60 more Republicans next year and we'll pass term limits."
Support was heavy for the measure among Republican freshmen members, many of whom came to Washington promising to push for limits. Freshman Rep. David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.) noted the maxim that "power corrupts" and said that he and other new lawmakers must guard "against the possibility that this new majority would be corrupted by this power."
On the Democratic side, eight-term Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts said that he opposed the idea because he believes "in representative democracy untrammeled, unrestricted, unrestrained. Democracy is not simply what a given majority in a public opinion poll thinks at a given time."
Wednesday marked the first time that Congress has ever voted on limiting the terms of its own members, a proposal that has become an emblem of the angry, anti-government sentiment that has led 22 states to adopt their own term limits.
Term limits has always been considered the most difficult item in the House "contract with America" legislative agenda to win approval, even though polls have shown that 80% of voters support the idea.
It is the only provision of the contract that directly affects members of Congress and is the one that has opened the widest divisions among Republicans.
At this point, the fate of the term limits movement may be in the hands of the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule by summer on whether a state's constitutional term limits can apply to its members of Congress.
Some term limits advocates are pushing Congress to vote on a statute to authorize states to set term limits. But House leaders have said that they will wait until after the court rules to consider that approach--which could be approved by a simple majority in each chamber. The Senate has not scheduled votes on any term limits measure.
Term limits opponents disputed the notion that the amendment was needed to bring new blood into Congress. Noting that 203 new members have come to Congress in the last two elections, Rep. John J. (Jimmy) Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) said that term limits represent an effort to "correct a problem that doesn't exist."
But proponents said that limits are needed to transform the culture of Congress from an institution dominated by career politicians to one populated by citizen legislators more responsive to voters.
"Congress has become too much like a permanent class of professional legislators," said Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.). "Term limits will break the power of entrenched incumbency."
The debate laid bare divisions among term limits proponents themselves, who have been at odds over details of the amendment. Advocates agreed that the proposed amendment should impose 12-year limits on senators. They disagreed about what cap to impose on House members and on whether states should be allowed to impose stricter limits.
Those differences were reflected in the four versions considered by the House.
The most drastic, sponsored by Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), would have limited House members to six years, or three terms. That is the version backed by U.S. Term Limits, a lobbying group that has attacked House Republican leaders for backing a 12-year limit. Critics said that the 12-year cap was a fig leaf for incumbents trying to protect their jobs.