If party loyalty and public opinion were all that mattered, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) would be leading the floor fight in favor of congressional term limits, a cornerstone of the GOP "contract with America."
Hyde, an influential senior Republican and a leader of the party's conservative wing, has all the makings of a die-hard party loyalist. He is the darling of a core GOP constituency, the anti-abortion lobby. He was handpicked by Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to be chairman of the House Judiciary Committee after the GOP won control of Congress.
But today, when the House debates the proposed constitutional amendment to limit congressional terms, Hyde will deploy his considerable rhetorical skills to help kill the popular measure.
Hyde, a 20-year House veteran who is a passionate opponent of term limits, is more than a GOP maverick on this issue. He is an emblem of why the Republicans are having such a hard time getting term limits passed. The House is still dominated by senior lawmakers, Republicans as well as Democrats, who are products of a seniority system that rewards experience and longevity--and is utterly at odds with the impatient spirit of term limits that runs strong in Congress' younger generation of Republicans.
"This is the dumbing down of democracy," Hyde said of term limits. "In times of real crisis we need people of experience."
That's just the kind of argument that drives term-limits advocates to distraction.
"People like Henry Hyde came into office a long time ago under (a different) set of rules," said Cleta Mitchell, director of the Term Limits Legal Institute. "Henry Hyde and his ilk are dinosaurs, but they are not yet extinct."
As the House began debate Tuesday, term-limits proponents conceded that they are unlikely to drum up the 290 votes they need.
The House will consider four versions of the amendment today. One would limit House members to 12 years in office, another would set a six-year limit. A third would set a 12-year limit but allow states to impose shorter terms. A Democratic alternative would apply retroactively, counting incumbents' current years of service toward the limit. All four options would limit senators to 12 years.
Republicans are trying to focus attention on Democratic opposition, laying the groundwork for blaming them for the prospective defeat of the measure. GOP leaders said they expect more than 80% of House Republicans to support the constitutional amendment and most Democrats to oppose it.
But one thing that has made it easier for Democrats to oppose term limits has been the opposition of Hyde and other senior Republicans, including party leaders and committee chairmen.
"Democrats are taking their cues from the Republicans," said Mark P. Petracca, a political scientist at UC Irvine who supports term limits. "If Republicans don't seem particularly worried (about opposing term limits), why should they?"
First elected to the House in 1974, Hyde is a domineering presence in any debate he enters. His booming voice and his erudite, often sharp-edged rhetoric command attention even in the cavernous House chamber.
He sees term limits as a relic of the GOP's years mired in the minority. Unable to beat Democrats at the ballot box for 40 years, he said, Republicans backed term limits to "beat them by formula." Now that the Republicans have won at the ballot box, Hyde said, "people feel they are stuck in this position" supporting term limits.
He intends to speak and vote against the bill, although he voted in committee to send it to the full House. However, the bill reported by his committee was so watered down by amendments that GOP leaders are not even bringing that version to the floor.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
These are the four term-limit proposals to be voted on by the House this week. All provide for a limit of two six-year terms for senators.
* A Democratic proposal setting a limit of six two-year terms for House members and counting past service against the total. It would permit states to set stricter limits.
* Another six-term limit plan, backed by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.). It is not retroactive and is silent on state limits.
* A third six-term plan, backed by Rep. Van Hilleary (R-Tenn.). It lets states set stricter limits but is silent on retroactivity.
* A proposal setting a three-term limit, backed by Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.). It is not retroactive and is silent on state limits.
Source: Associated Press