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With Control of Congress Come the Tough Decisions

Pressure is on the GOP to pass bills on energy, Medicare, Iraq. Success may mean compromise.

October 26, 2003|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congress is on the brink of producing landmark Medicare, energy and foreign-aid bills. Now comes the test of whether the Republicans who control all of Washington's levers of power can avoid a common pitfall: overreaching.

Republicans everywhere are facing tough choices between sticking with beloved conservative principles and striking compromises more likely to become law.

At stake is whether this landmark year -- in which Republicans have controlled the White House and both houses of Congress for the first time in almost half a century -- produces a legislative boom or bust.

On the big energy bill, Republicans would love to include President Bush's signature initiative to expand oil drilling in Alaska. But they are expected to drop the controversial provision for the sake of getting a bill through the narrowly divided Senate.

In debate on revamping Medicare to cover prescription drugs, conservative Republicans have pushed hard for their dream of introducing private-market competition to the program. But that provision could put the whole bill at risk of being filibustered to death in the Senate.

In foreign policy, approval of Bush's $87-billion request for Iraq and Afghanistan is a foregone conclusion. But it requires many deficit-conscious conservatives to swallow reservations about the $20 billion included for rebuilding Iraq.

In each case, the political pressure on Republicans to produce is intense. Many Republicans believe they won the Senate and expanded their hold on the House in the 2002 elections in large part because Democrats who controlled the Senate were seen as blocking, not producing, important legislation -- especially a Medicare drug benefit.

"We all ran on it; the president promised it; we have to deliver it," said Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, a member of the House Republican leadership. "It is very, very important politically."

The situation calls for what amounts to a personality transplant for a party that for years perfected the role of the aggrieved minority in Congress. Obstructionism and ideological purity were the order of the day when Republicans were mired in the minority and shut out of power before 1994, when they took over the House. The power shift was not complete until this year, when Republicans held both chambers of Congress and the White House.

"It's been a psychological adjustment for Republicans to realize they are the government," said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "Part of learning to govern inevitably means learning to shave off some of the ideological edge."

Having control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue makes it harder for Republicans to blame Democrats for Congress' failures. But the narrow 51-49 margin of GOP control in the Senate provides only tenuous control in a chamber where the minority can wield tremendous clout.

"We've got control, but we don't have the votes to do what we'd like to do," said Rep. Sue Wilkins Myrick (R-N.C.), a leader of an influential caucus of House conservatives.

Still, Republicans wield outsized influence in the process of writing the final version of any bill. The conference committees that reconcile differences between the House and Senate are always dominated by the majority party.

The GOP has pressed its advantage to the hilt on energy, Medicare and Iraq bills by excluding most Democrats from all negotiations except pro forma meetings to ratify Republican agreements. That gives the GOP wide latitude -- but also broad responsibility for the product.

Also pressuring Republicans to produce is the weight of public opinion, as the latest Gallup Poll shows approval of Congress' job performance has dropped to 40% this month. That is the lowest approval rating since May 2000.

David Winston, a GOP pollster, noticed a slight upswing in public approval recently that he attributed in part to the fact that Congress had just passed an extremely popular bill to reinstate a "do-not-call" registry to curb telemarketing. He says that demonstrates the political importance to Republicans of avoiding a legislative stalemate.

"There's a positive reaction people have to Congress getting things done," Winston said.

Republican leaders are pushing hard to wrap up major bills before their mid-November adjournment target even though Congress can resume work on unfinished bills next year. That's in part because lawmakers generally believe that it will be harder to pass major bills in a presidential election year.

"If we get the [Iraq funding bill], energy and Medicare through in the next few weeks, we will go into the locker room at half time feeling pretty good," said Jonathan Grella, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

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