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GOP Class of '94 Clamoring for Confrontation

September 15, 1997|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Three years ago, he was a gleaming exemplar of the Republican Party's future. Freshly elected to Congress in 1994 as part of the conservative vanguard of self-styled revolutionaries, Rep. David M. McIntosh of Indiana was brimming with energy to upend the ways of Washington. An acolyte of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), he was rewarded with the kind of power and position rarely granted a greenhorn.

McIntosh now finds himself in a very different place: at odds with GOP leaders as the party takes an increasingly conciliatory tack. It got so bad this summer, after a failed conservative effort to oust Gingrich, that McIntosh was seen as the target of a threat by the speaker to take retribution on disloyal Republicans.

McIntosh's transformation from golden boy to enfant terrible of the House GOP is emblematic of the changing fortunes of the Republican equivalent of the baby-boom generation--the big 1994 class of rambunctious Republicans who tipped the partisan balance of power in the House for the first time in a generation and set the confrontational tone for their first year in power.

If the rebels were in the driver's seat then, they are riding in a sidecar now.

All this year, they have been fighting an uphill battle to steer the House on a more conservative course. They were the core of GOP opposition to the budget-balancing deal between congressional leaders and the White House, which passed overwhelmingly. They were ringleaders of the bungled effort to oust Gingrich.

Last week, they tied up the House for days with an effort to rewrite a social-spending bill that didn't square with their conservative principles. They did manage to wrangle some victories--including a cut in President Clinton's Goals 2000 education-reform initiative--and they are expected this week to win a vote to block funding for Clinton's national education testing plan. But they lost on dozens of other amendments, and the social-spending bill as a whole is expected to remain unacceptable to most conservatives.

That debate has crystallized the quandary that has faced this cadre of conservatives all year: They are clamoring for a confrontational approach to Clinton at a time when many of their GOP colleagues, including a speaker who is trying to repair the political damage suffered during a lengthy ethics investigation, have concluded that the public wants Congress to end the partisan bickering and get on with the nation's business.

"They are behaving the way Newt Gingrich trained them to behave," said John F. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. "But now the program is different. Compromise has replaced confrontation in Gingrich's order of the day."

Gingrich, in fact, says he sympathizes with the sophomores, even though he is willing to accept a more incremental rate of change than they are.

"I agree with them," Gingrich said Sunday on ABC-TV's "This Week" program. "I mean, I think the sophomores were elected in '94 . . . as people who were going to change Washington dramatically. . . . But if you're going to have four years of a liberal Democrat in the White House and conservative Republicans in the legislative branch, you try every morning to move the system as far as you can."

Conservatives Push for Bolder Agenda

The fate of the class of '94 provides a window into a battle royal over the Republican Party's direction in the wake of the budget-balancing deal. With that grand compromise behind them, conservatives are reasserting themselves with demands that the GOP push a bolder agenda featuring more tax cuts, antiabortion initiatives and opposition to affirmative action.

Although their numbers are dwindling, the class of '94 will continue to have a loud voice in the debate. And even if they don't get their way, they will keep up the pressure on the party not to drift too far from its conservative base.

"This gets discouraging," said Rep. Marshall "Mark" Sanford (R-S.C.). "But if we weren't here, where would the party be?"

Sanford is just one of 73 Republicans elected to the House in 1994--the huge influx that gave their party control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. They were, by and large, conservatives with a passionate anti-Washington streak. They were hellbent on more than traditional GOP goals of cutting taxes and balancing the federal budget: They wanted to smash the business-as-usual, log-rolling mind-set of the Washington establishment.

They were loyal foot soldiers who helped drive the GOP agenda in 1995, as the Republicans' "contract with America" swept through the House. Their fervor helped stiffen the spines of GOP leaders when they went to battle with Clinton. Their resistance to compromise had a powerful influence on the budget strategy that produced two government shutdowns in the winter of 1995-96.

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