Hoping to seize control of the House for the first time in 40 years, about 300 Republican incumbents and GOP candidates Tuesday signed a manifesto outlining changes they pledged to write into law if they win a majority in the November elections.
The 10-point platform, which Democrats denounced as unworkable and a fraud on the public, promises action on a balanced-budget amendment, a presidential line-item veto, massive family tax cuts and other popular issues. It made no mention of health care legislation.
The pact was endorsed at a boisterous, flag-waving rally on the west front of the Capitol. A band blaring patriotic music and red-white-and-blue bunting provided a colorful backdrop for adoption of the GOP "contract with America," designed to take advantage of what Republicans see as a conservative tidal wave that will sweep Democrats from office this year.
Republicans gambled that this unprecedented attempt to unify behind a series of domestic issues would allow them to pick up the 40 seats they need to elect the House Speaker and run the chamber for the first time since 1954. Most independent experts predict Republicans will gain about 25 seats, narrowing the Democrats' current 78-seat margin but falling short of majority control.
Leading Democrats were quick to denounce provisions of the pact, charging that they would add $800 billion to the deficit and cut taxes primarily for the rich at the expense of Medicare and Social Security recipients.
"This is a fraud, and I think the American people need to know that," said White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta. White House officials have said that the Republican contract does not specify where all the spending cuts would be made to offset sweeping tax reductions of more than $100 billion.
Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, contended that the economic provisions in the GOP plan would be a replay of the higher defense spending and tax cuts advocated by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 that led to exploding federal deficits.
"And now, in an incredible display of contempt for the intelligence and responsibility of the American people, House Republicans are betting Americans will have forgotten the wreckage produced by their first (Reagan) contract and are planning to do it all over again," Obey said.
House Minority Leader Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who developed the strategy, voiced confidence that voters would rally around the campaign commitments. "This is a first step toward renewing American civilization," Gingrich said. "If America fails, our children will live on a dark and bloody planet."
The House GOP platform includes an anti-crime package, a two-year limit for welfare payments and a shut-off of welfare for teen-age mothers who have children out of wedlock, a vote on a constitutional amendment to limit the number of terms lawmakers can serve and a $500 tax credit for each dependent child. Other provisions cover such perennial Republican goals as a reduction of the capital gains tax, an increase in the earnings limit for Social Security recipients and more tax breaks for businesses.
Gingrich said all the legislation would be voted upon within the first 100 days if the Republicans have a majority in the House next January. Other changes would be made to cut House committee staffs by one-third, order an audit of House books, limit terms of committee chairs, forbid proxy voting in committee and require a three-fifths vote of the House to raise taxes, he said.
Gingrich and his allies stressed that the pact would show that their party has a positive agenda rather than simply opposing President Clinton's programs and would dramatize the contrast with Democrats seeking reelection.
Since opinion polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction, GOP strategists hope that their contract will persuade voters to put them in power in Congress with a mandate for coordinated change.
"We are ready to prove that business as usual in Washington just won't do," said GOP House candidate Bob Moppert of New York, presenting the case for a balanced-budget amendment and a line-item veto.
Candidate Linda Smith of Washington state asked: "Don't you think your tax bill is too high?"
But Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) said that the GOP candidates were being led blindfolded by Gingrich and his lieutenants. "I would hope Americans will read this contract before they decide whether they will sign it or not," Miller said on the House floor.
Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) welcomed the Republicans' platform, which he said was "extremely vulnerable" to criticism.
GOP nominees for the House, he said, have an obligation to represent their district and not be put into "some kind of a steel collar contract to vote at the direction of the Republican leadership."