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NEWS ANALYSIS : Budget Battle Forces Gingrich Into the Trenches : Congress: In order to keep his Republican troops in line, the House Speaker has had to abandon his role as a forceful commander and become a wheeler-dealer.

October 21, 1995|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Ever since he became House Speaker in January, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has cut the dominating figure of a political field marshal who stands above the battle and drives his troops forward by force of personality and a stern eye for discipline.

But now, as Congress comes down to the final struggle over the biggest piece of legislation this year--the huge budget bill that would slash government spending, balance the budget in seven years and cut taxes--he has had to abandon his lofty hilltop.

These days, Gingrich is down in the trenches, pleading with his troops to follow him over the top.

Ideology and lock-step commitment to the GOP's "contract with America" brought him this far. To go the final distance, the Speaker is struggling to build majorities, vote by vote, using many of the same logrolling techniques that were mainstays of the old order he disdains.

In the process, Gingrich has had to abandon his high-flying ideological rhetoric about saving Western civilization and speak the homely dialect of lawmakers' parochial concerns.

He is up to his boot tops in a bitter dispute between Northeastern milk producers and farmers in the Midwest. Likewise, he has promised New Jersey a special break under Medicaid. He long ago abandoned a proposal to raise taxes on ethanol producers rather than face mutiny by corn-state Republicans.

That and other concessions were made official Friday, when the House Budget Committee released a revised version of the budget bill that dropped a handful of contested provisions in a bid to pick up Republican support.

Ultimately, House leaders are still confident about winning approval of the budget bill before the end of next week. The numbers are still on their side. The vote will come close on the heels of their triumph on the GOP's ambitious plan to overhaul Medicare.

Yet if the Medicare bill involved more high-profile political risks, the budget bill potentially cuts closer to the bone for an even broader array of voters, embodying as it does cuts and changes in a mind-numbing array of government programs including Medicaid, farm subsidies, government pensions, student loans and welfare.

Many members confess that they do not have a clue what all is in the bill, which means that they also cannot be sure what pain it might inflict on their constituents.

"We're just kind of praying that someone knows what they're doing," said Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.).

As the political stakes get higher and higher, nerves are beginning to fray--both Gingrich's and those of his colleagues. Last week, a leadership meeting among farm-state Republicans degenerated into a shouting match so loud that the Capitol Police interrupted it to make sure everything was all right. Gingrich is snapping at people in the endless meetings, sources close to him said, and is seeming to run out of patience with members trying to win concessions in exchange for their votes.

"The Speaker is clearly exasperated," said one House Republican who has attended many meetings with Gingrich in the last week. "He hasn't gone off the deep end, but he's been under a lot of strain for a long period of time."

In a tribute to the enormous political stakes in the budget bill, Gingrich's deep immersion in the details mark a sharp departure from the leadership style he seemed to patent in the early months of his reign as Speaker.

While Republicans pushed through the "contract with America" during Congress' first 100 days, Gingrich delegated the job of building coalitions, counting votes and shepherding legislation to others. He himself weighed in only rarely, such as when the House nearly rejected a big appropriations bill cutting an array of popular social programs.

"He's there at crunch time," Ronald M. Peters, director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Study Center at the University of Oklahoma, said of this approach. "He's there when the Speaker needs to be there, when only his status and credibility could make the process work."

Increasingly, however, as the legislative crunch-points come tumbling one after another at a faster and faster pace during the final months of this historic session, those moments when only the Speaker can make things happen are occurring almost daily.

In the case of Medicare, Gingrich took charge from the beginning as chief draftsman, salesman, teacher and wheeler-dealer.

When he presented the proposal to the House Republican Conference, he lectured like the college professor he once was, bluntly telling lawmakers who were chatting among themselves to leave the room if they were not going to listen. He masterminded the legislative and political strategy for selling the bill and, in the endgame this week, cut the deals necessary to win its passage.

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