WASHINGTON — Shedding an earlier caution, many Republican politicians have been speaking out with increasing boldness to support positions taken by right-wing militia groups.
Even as President Clinton has attacked the groups' claims to patriotism, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and a growing corps of allies from Western states have recently expressed sympathy for some citizens' fears of encroaching government, called for new scrutiny of federal law officers and rejected demands for investigations of the militias themselves.
While none are defending the Oklahoma City bombing or anti-government violence, they are seeking to focus the policy debate stirred by the attack not on the militias but on the government agencies that militia members and their sympathizers consider the enemy.
This new emphasis, with its libertarian tint, signals a striking departure from conservative Republicans' long tradition of staunchly supporting law enforcement officials. And it has been met with charges from Democrats that the GOP lawmakers' expressions of sympathy are legitimizing, and even encouraging, anti-government activists.
Last week, Gingrich declared that Westerners have a "genuine fear" of the federal government that Easterners and city dwellers should try to understand. And when Democratic Rep. Charles E. Schumer of New York called for a congressional investigation of the harassment of federal officials, Gingrich implied ties between those defending government today and those who had attacked it in an earlier era.
"Exactly which elements of the government does he most want to protect?" Gingrich asked in an interview with the Washington Times. "Would he like to bring in people who demonstrated in front of American embassies? Would he like to bring in people who urinated on the Pentagon? Would he like to bring in people who insulted American soldiers in uniform?"
Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) has declared his sympathy for Westerners angry at government, saying: "I don't disagree with their arguments." And Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Ida.) has said plainly that citizens "have a reason to be afraid of their government."
Rep. Steve Stockman, a Texas Republican, acknowledged last week that he had written an article in the June issue of Guns & Ammo magazine suggesting that the Clinton Administration had organized the 1993 raid by federal agents on the Branch Davidian religious compound near Waco, Tex., with an eye on bolstering public support for gun control.
Two leading GOP presidential candidates, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, have not been so outspoken. But both have joined the call for hearings into alleged government wrongdoing in the bloody Waco raid and in the 1992 shootout with white supremacist Randy Weaver in Ruby Ridge, Ida.
When former President George Bush renounced his National Rifle Assn. membership last week over NRA fund-raising literature that called federal agents "jackbooted thugs," Dole made it clear that he would not follow suit. And Gramm is scheduled to address an NRA convention later this month at which a more militantly anti-government NRA faction is expected to oust leaders who have sought a less political role for the organization.
It is not only the most conservative Republicans who have joined the cry for new scrutiny of alleged excesses by federal agents. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the most liberal member of the GOP presidential field and a subcommittee chairman, jousted with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) last week over which one of them would preside at hearings into the federal assaults on the Branch Davidian compound and Weaver's home in Idaho.
Hearings on federal agents' alleged excesses are expected in both the House and Senate. Democrats, however, have so far been unsuccessful in trying to organize hearings on the threats to federal personnel.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) said Republicans in Congress "are talking in code right now" to the anti-government groups, trying to demonstrate their sympathy.
"They know they'll eventually have to do (an) anti-terrorism bill, but they want to show ahead of time they're still on (the groups') side," said Miller, who as ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee has pushed for hearings on threats and violence against federal forestry, land management and wildlife officials.
Miller charged that those opposing his stance would not be showing such sympathy if the Oklahoma bombing suspects had been from other backgrounds.
"If they had been black, Chicano, or people upset about the CIA and Guatemala--or just about anybody else . . . there would have been hell to pay," he said. "They would have marked up this anti-terrorism bill and had it on the floor (of Congress) within 72 hours."