THE NATION : Congressional Drive-bys: The Real Warfare Is Generational

John Heilemann is Washington correspondent for the Economist

Newly elected Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) looks like one of the law-and-orderliest guys alive. But after his recent attacks on his party's elders, it seems that, given the proper weaponry, he'd fit right in with the nastiest street gangs Los Angeles or Chicago has to offer. Pick any such posse and you'll find plenty like him: young, brash, brutal and deeply worrying to the gang's older, cooler, more businesslike leaders. "We know we need these wild boys to do business," a Chicago gang veteran told me last fall. "We also know they'd smoke us in a second to make a name for themselves."

So when Santorum and some of his fellow Senate freshman took aim at 72-year-old Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.) for his vote against the balanced-budget amendment, it raised the question: Are congressional Republicans turning into the Crips of Capitol Hill?

Not exactly. Gangbangers kill innocent kids; Republicans just kill programs that help innocent kids. GOP congressmen do religiously wear their crew's chosen colors--but you're not likely to see many rappers turning up on MTV in boxy blue suits and stripy red ties. Even so, in important respects the analogy holds. The GOP's Old Bulls need their Young Turks to help pull off the revolution. But tensions between the generations are growing fast and getting ugly. If the party doesn't deal with them, a serious blood bath awaits.

How serious? The Hatfield drive-by was one noisy clue. But last week provided two silent hints that were far more significant. For while House Republicans rejoiced over passing $17 billion in spending cuts on Thursday, what they were less keen to talk about were scheduled votes on term limits (in the House) and the line-item veto (in the Senate) that had to be postponed when it became clear both were headed for failure. In each case, the culprit was dissension within the party. And in each case, the dissension was less ideological than generational.

This intra-GOP rift was in the cards. The sheer number of newcomers swept into the Senate and House last November more or less guaranteed it. In the upper chamber, 11 of the 53 Republican seats are held by new members. In the lower chamber, the party's incoming class totals a staggering 73. Incredibly, more than half of all sitting House Republicans were elected in 1992 and 1994.

Each group has its own character. Many Senate freshmen, including Santorum, came directly from the House--where they were weaned in the 1980s on supply-side economics and scorched-earth politics. They are Reaganites. The House freshman are more Perotist. Many are protectionists, most hated the idea of a Mexican bailout. All worship Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). They will go to almost any length imaginable--from sleeping on their office sofas to ritually chanting, "There's no place like home" into talk-radio microphones--to show they are not becoming creatures from inside the Beltway. One especially Spartan Tennessean, Zach Wamp, went so far as to suggest building congressional barracks on two local military bases.

Yet more unites the two sets of Republican homeboys than divides them. Both are possessed of a near missionary zeal to cut spending. Both hate taxes. Both hate welfare. Both recognize their power as a voting bloc--and hold meetings to figure out ways to exercise it. And both have their share of frustrations with the grand old men of the Grand Old Party. "Things don't change around here and nobody wants them to," moans Santorum. "Particularly the people who hold power." His superiors, that is.

Irritation among the newcomers was inevitable in the Senate--where the stately pace and arcane rules of order would test the patience of Job, let alone a bomb-thrower like Santorum. Freshmen gripe about wasting five weeks debating the balanced-budget amendment, when the House took just two days, and then losing anyway. To old Senate hands, this is part of the place's charm. But what makes the Senate even more ripe for conflict is that many of those same old hands are committee chairmen, like Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) and John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), whose moderate views make them unwilling participants in any quasi-Newtonian jihad.

It's this split that has put the line-item veto in jeopardy. The younger, right-wing slice of the party has rallied behind a proposal by John McCain (R-Ariz), while moderates, fearing McCain's version cedes too much institutional power to the President, are backing a watered-down bill offered by Domenici. "It's all generational," McCain said. "The longer they've been around, the more they tend to support Pete."

A compromise may be worked out on the line-item veto, but term limits have developed into a debacle. This kind of thing wasn't supposed to happen in the House. With his revolutionary fervor, Gingrich has usually been simpatico with House freshmen--a.k.a. Newtoids. But not always. Early on, there was quiet resentment when the Speaker gave up the freshman idea of requiring, as part of a balanced-budget amendment, a supermajority in Congress to raise taxes.

Now, term limits have ripped the generation gap wide open. Restricting tenure is supported by a vast majority of Perot voters, which is why many freshmen and sophomores loudly campaigned on it. But hoary party leaders hate the idea. As many as nine House committee chairmen will vote against it, including 21-year veteran Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.); so will the Republican whip, Tom DeLay of Texas. Indeed, one of the great delights of the debate is that it has Gingrich himself sounding like former Democratic Speaker Thomas S. Foley. "Trying to run this place on a six-year term," says Gingrich, who has been in Congress since 1978, "would be genuinely destructive to the country."

After weeks of farcical haggling, the leadership produced an even more farcical bill, which would permit members to serve 12 years, take two off, then serve another 12. Freshmen rebelled. So now Gingrich is scrambling to save face. But the truth is, few people expect any form of term limits to pass the House. In the Senate, they haven't a prayer.

This is a bad omen. Just a few weeks ago, the received wisdom was that the easy part for Republicans would be passing procedural reforms, while hard sledding would come on substantive matters such as welfare reform and the budget. But today it looks possible that the three big procedural changes--the balanced-budget amendment, term limits and the line-item veto, the first two of which also happen to the most popular clauses in the "contract with America"--may end up dead in the street.

That doesn't necessarily mean generational gunplay will take the same toll on the rest of the GOP agenda. Conservative thinkers such as David Frum argue that the devotion of House and Senate freshmen to cutting spending will strengthen the party's resolve to deal with the deficit. But older Republicans are already showing a marked reluctance to slaughter many sacred cows--from farm subsidies to corporate welfare. And while first- and second-term GOPers are enthusiastic about attacking spending, they are equally so about chopping taxes, a position at odds with been-there, done-that types like Domenici.

The question for Republicans is whether they can harness the energies of their wild young bucks while reining in their excesses. If they can't, the party is likely to learn two lessons every gang leader knows. First: Crazy, young gangbangers come in handy in a fight for turf, but too much random shooting is bad for business. And second: The biggest threat to any gang doesn't come from rival crews or cops, but from internal warfare.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World