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GOP Renegades Throw a Wrench in House Business

May 28, 1999|JANET HOOK and ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — With divisions among Republicans suddenly widening, the House ground to a screeching halt this week as balky GOP backbenchers dealt their own leaders embarrassing setbacks on budget, defense and campaign finance measures.

The imbroglio--with Congress leaving town today for an extended Memorial Day recess--has raised questions about when, or whether, Republicans will be able to pass the legislative accomplishments they want to present to voters in next year's elections.

The week's developments also illustrated just how hard it is for the GOP to maintain command of Congress and the national policy debate with its razor-thin margin in the House--and with the new, self-consciously low-key leadership of Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

The problems began when renegade Republicans hogtied the House for two days because they thought their party was embarking on a budget spending spree. Another group of GOP lawmakers thumbed its nose at its leaders and signed a Democratic petition to force debate on campaign finance reform. The crowning blow came Thursday, when Republican leaders had to shelve a Pentagon appropriations bill after their rank and file demanded a full-dress debate on the U.S. military commitment in the Balkans.

The core of the GOP's problem is a structural one that cannot be changed until the next election: The party controls the House by such a narrow majority that party leaders cannot afford to lose even six Republicans on any given vote.

"Any time six people get up in the morning and decide they don't like what the leadership is doing, we've got problems," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "It happened three times this week."

The tumult also reflects the growing pains of the new leadership team that inherited this precarious position of power. Hastert, a former high school wrestling coach, has provided five months of hands-off guidance that generally has been welcomed by Republicans as a respite from the more intense, ideologically driven leadership that marked Newt Gingrich's speakership.

"The vast majority [of Republicans] have a high approval rating for" Hastert, LaHood said.

But his style has also created an opening for other forces to shape the agenda: Democrats, who chafe under the GOP majority; more controversial GOP figures, such as House Minority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who led the drive to impeach President Clinton, and external events, such as school shootings and the war in Kosovo.

This week began with the Republicans scoring valuable political points on two key issues. For days, the GOP had been on the defensive as the Senate debated--and ultimately passed--various gun control measures spurred by the high school massacre last month in Colorado. But House Republican leaders seemed to staunch the bleeding by embracing the proposals and promising a vote on them in mid-June. They also focused a harsh light on the White House with release of a House committee report highly critical of the administration's response to suspected Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear labs.

But the rest of the week provided rude reminders of the GOP's narrow hold on power in the House. Their small majority means that Republicans can pass legislation only with a bipartisan coalition of the center or by maintaining strict party discipline. Throughout this session, neither strategy has emerged as one the GOP leaders can count on.

Mistrust between the parties--magnified by the battle over President Clinton's impeachment last year--remains so deep that, even when Republicans essentially capitulated on gun control, Democrats questioned their motives and accused them of trying to give the gun lobby more time to fight. Republicans, in turn, accused Democrats of playing politics.

But lately, Hastert's problems have been coming from within his own party.

It was such a division within GOP ranks over the federal budget that practically brought the House to a standstill for two days. A handful of conservative Republicans attacked a bill they said put the party on the path to busting the caps on spending they had labored so hard to impose as part of 1997's historic commitment to balanced budgets.

Appropriations Committee leaders have argued that the spending limits are unrealistic, and have been laying the groundwork for negotiating increases in them with Clinton later this year.

But that strategy has infuriated a small band of conservatives--the remnants of the "revolutionary" class of Republicans who first won election in 1994 in the party's surprising takeover of Congress. Rep. Tom A. Coburn (R-Okla.) led the charge against the agriculture appropriations bill, proposing more than 100 amendments to cut the measure's cost. GOP leaders eventually pulled the bill from the floor, planning to come back to it after the recess.

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