NEWS ANALYSIS : GOP 'Contract' on a Roll, but Not a Done Deal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As it nears the midpoint of its 100-day push to enact its "contract with America," the Republican-controlled House has achieved an unprecedented level of productivity, passing 16 separate pieces of legislation in seven weeks.

Despite the impressive flurry, the long weeks and 14-hour days, however, it remains far from clear whether much of its work will ever become law. The Senate has signaled that it will block, stall or reject many of the House Republicans' most cherished priorities.

What is clear is that the legislation with the broadest support that was the easiest to pass is now behind them and House Republicans face much more divisive issues in the 50 days ahead. Progress is likely to be much slower in turning these issues into legislation and public support for their efforts is likely to flag.

The first 50 days, said Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) in an interview, "was the easy half. . . . The passions get bigger as the legislation gets bigger." Among the divisive issues that the House has yet to take up are tax and spending cuts, congressional term limits, welfare reform and legal reform.

In a scant 46 days, the House has passed legislation that would dramatically overhaul its own rules of operation, adopted a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and approved half a dozen measures that would shift the emphasis of the nation's criminal justice system from prevention to punishment. It has made Congress subject to the same laws it passes for the rest of the country and voted to give the President a line-item veto.

During the same period, the Senate has maintained its accustomed stately pace, passing only two of the House bills approved so far--a measure that would force the federal government to pay for most of the programs it imposes on state and local governments and the Congressional Accountability Act that makes Congress subject to the laws it passes for the rest of the land.

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But if Congress' new Republican majority has fallen short of its ambitious promises to cure what ails the government, GOP lawmakers have given voters temporary relief, at least, for a common American political affliction: distrust of Congress and disapproval of lawmakers. The frenetic House burst of productivity seems to have prompted a resurgence of confidence in the institution of Congress.

In a Gallup poll conducted in early February, 38% of Americans surveyed said they approved of the way Congress is handling its job, while 53% said they disapproved. Still a low level of popular favor, that marked a substantial boost from the nadir of public lack of confidence in Congress, reached in October, 1994, when only 21% of those polled expressed approval for Congress and 73% said they disapproved of the job lawmakers were doing.

"This is real change, this is not politics as usual," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) on Thursday as he touted the achievements of the House to date. "We are in fact very different."

But, he added pointedly, "it is very hard work."

And it is hard work that is certain to get harder, as House Republicans move from measures that enjoyed substantial Democratic support to issues that have sparked deep and bitter divisions between the parties and within Republican ranks as well.

Long before the 104th Congress, many Democrats had joined Republicans in supporting a measure barring unfunded mandates, a balanced-budget amendment, a bill giving the President the line-item veto and some revisions of the crime bill. But both bipartisan support and Republican discipline are expected to fall away quickly when lawmakers take up divisive issues that remain on their agenda.

The first signal of that growing contentiousness appeared just before the 50-day mark, when House Republicans split over a contract item that has long been a GOP icon: deploying a space-based antimissile shield. Some 24 Republicans voted with Democrats to reject a proposal to hasten the deployment of a missile defense system. During later debate on the same national security bill, many more Republicans broke ranks with their leaders to turn down proposals that would have limited the President's latitude in committing troops to many peacekeeping missions abroad.

Already, Republican leaders have begun to acknowledge that tax cuts proposed by Republicans are facing increasing skepticism from GOP deficit-hawks in both the House and Senate and have suggested that they might have to scale back the proposals contained in the contract.

Spending cuts also are certain to elicit vehement opposition from many Republicans when they realize that the reductions will be harsh in their home districts. Republicans who promised an end to subsidies in the farm bill, for example, are now beginning to reconsider in the face of concerns from farm communities back home. Lawmakers from farming districts also are expressing growing concern about proposed deep cuts in the food stamp program, which delivers income to farmers.

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Another major element of the contract--a constitutional amendment imposing term limits on lawmakers--will face significant opposition from within GOP ranks. Gingrich, seeking to salvage term limits legislation that would allow House Republicans to proclaim some measure of victory, is considering a highly diluted version of the measure that he hopes could win sufficient Republican support to pass the House.

Republicans had to make a similar tactical adjustment in late January when they discovered that their proposal for a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and make tax hikes harder to enact did not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass. In the end, leaders salvaged a victory by stripping out the tax-hike provision.

But while House Republicans appear willing to curb the most divisive aspects of their agenda to ensure victory in the House, they acknowledge that they are making no effort to tailor bills to assure passage in the Senate.

Much of the recent legislation passed to amend last year's crime bill is not expected to be entertained seriously in the Senate, and the upper chamber is similarly expected to reject many of the Republicans' most far-reaching welfare reform proposals. Indeed, it is far from clear that the Senate, after weeks and weeks of debate, will even pass the diluted version of the balanced-budget amendment adopted by the House.

"When you think about your responsibility as a member of Congress, you shouldn't be constrained by what might happen in the other body or at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), one of Gingrich's principal lieutenants. "If we tackled the task of law-making with an eye to what the Senate will pass, we wouldn't do much. I mean, if you're going to catch hell, you might as well do what's right."

That view, however, has led many observers--Democratic lawmakers among them--to conclude that much of the Republicans' poll-buoying congressional action amounts to little more than political posturing.

"Its effect on real people's lives out there has been and will continue to be negligible," said House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.). "Like they say, 'lotta hat, no cowboy.' "

Which is not to say that the first 50 days have not been painful for many Democrats, who were wrenched from positions of power after their party had held it for 40 years and now find themselves virtually voiceless on the floor and in committee.

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Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward), emerging last week from a welfare reform mark-up at which Democratic proposals were consistently rebuffed, compared the first 100 days to suffering from a kidney stone. "It's incredibly painful. You think you're going to die. But eventually it's going to pass." After the first 100 days pass, he added hopefully, some kind of normalcy will return.

But it is virtually certain to get worse for Democrats before it gets better. So far, Gingrich has punched holes beside just two contract items, signifying that votes on them have been completed, as promised. And while Armey last week called the Democrats "darned good-natured" about their newly diminished powers, his party has made it clear that as votes get tougher, House Republican leaders almost certainly will seek to squeeze Democrats' opportunities to amend and dilute their bills.

The Republicans' commitment to so-called "open rules," which do not limit the number of amendments that can be offered or the length of debate, "is a commitment that's being tested daily," conceded Dreier, who said that many Republicans are insisting that rules be more restrictive.

A small but growing number of House Democrats have come to believe that they would do well to let Republicans have their way for the next 50 days.

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