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GOP Political Machine Hits Snags After a Good Start : Congress: Stumbling blocks indicate public is only willing to go so far in quest to downsize government.


WASHINGTON — Seven months after it took Capitol Hill by storm, the Republican juggernaut led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia is still rolling over pockets of resistance on its way to enacting the conservative vision of a less intrusive federal government.

Yet as Gingrich and his troops savor their latest string of floor victories before embarking on a monthlong summer recess, there is a growing sense that the Republicans are beginning to bump up against the limits of the public's revolutionary fervor.

On issues ranging from family planning to environmental safeguards to worker protection, GOP leaders are in danger of overreaching. In recent weeks, they have been confronted with the kinds of intraparty divisions, bruising setbacks and outright defeats that were largely avoided during their halcyon first 100 days in power.

House Republicans left town on a high note Friday, after passing a bill that would slash spending for labor, health and education programs. But that could turn out to be a high watermark for conservatives, because the bill will surely be watered down in the less conservative Senate and faces a veto threat by President Clinton.

"It's like Napoleon reaching Moscow--they are not going to get much farther," said David Mayhew, a Yale University political scientist. "Resistance is hardening."

A review of the current state of the GOP legislative agenda provides the best road map yet of how far the nation is--and is not--willing to go down the road to smaller government. It seems clear that most Americans want fewer government regulations, but worry when they're told they might get rancid meat as a result; they may not lose sleep over spotted owls, but they want their clean drinking water, and they are wary of federal funding for abortion, but want to support family planning.

That ambivalence was glossed over in the Republicans' bold reading--some say misreading--of the 1994 election as a resounding mandate to reduce the size and scope of government. Republicans are working on the risky political assumption that voters care more about the broader goal of reducing government than they do about the benefits and protections they lose in the process.

Waning Support

For that, Republicans could pay a political price. Polls indicate that the longer Republicans are in power, the less the public likes what they are doing. A Times Mirror poll in January found that far more people approved of the Republicans' policies than disapproved, by 52% to 28%. By June, support had slipped to the point where more disapproved than approved, by a 45% to 41% margin.

And a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that the public's disapproval of Congress jumped 10 points--from 43% to 53%--from June to August, the crucial months when Republicans laid out the details of their balanced budget plan.

The political risks get even steeper this fall, when attention turns to GOP plans to wring $270 billion in savings from Medicare, a program that--unlike the narrower programs cut in this summer's appropriations debates--touches the lives of virtually every American.

Lawmakers will have a chance to test constituent reaction during their long August recess, which begins for the Senate at the end of this week.

In both chambers, the recess will bring an end to an intense and exhausting summer session. In recent weeks, debates stretching deep into the night became the rule rather than the exception. Partisanship came to a boil in both chambers. The rhetoric turned especially ugly in the House last week, as Republicans steamed toward passage of the labor, health and education spending bill that crystallized their legislative ambitions.

"It's a glorious day if you're a fascist," shouted Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) during Thursday's late-night debate. When an angry Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), the presiding officer, tried to bring Miller to order, he banged the gavel so hard its head broke off.

"The gentleman embarrasses himself and the House," Walker lectured Miller.

The round-the-clock pace matched that of the first 100 days, when GOP leaders pushed the House to vote on their entire campaign manifesto, the "contract with America." But there the similarity ends. During the first 100 days, attention focused on the House and on issues such as the line-item veto and regulatory and welfare reforms, all of which enjoyed broad public support. Bills moved at a brisk pace and generally passed with wide bipartisan margins.

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