Ever since he became House Speaker in January, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has cut the dominating figure of a political field marshal who stands above the battle and drives his troops forward by force of personality and a stern eye for discipline.
But now, as Congress comes down to the final struggle over the biggest piece of legislation this year--the huge budget bill that would slash government spending, balance the budget in seven years and cut taxes--he has had to abandon his lofty hilltop.
These days, Gingrich is down in the trenches, pleading with his troops to follow him over the top.
Ideology and lock-step commitment to the GOP's "contract with America" brought him this far. To go the final distance, the Speaker is struggling to build majorities, vote by vote, using many of the same logrolling techniques that were mainstays of the old order he disdains.
In the process, Gingrich has had to abandon his high-flying ideological rhetoric about saving Western civilization and speak the homely dialect of lawmakers' parochial concerns.
He is up to his boot tops in a bitter dispute between Northeastern milk producers and farmers in the Midwest. Likewise, he has promised New Jersey a special break under Medicaid. He long ago abandoned a proposal to raise taxes on ethanol producers rather than face mutiny by corn-state Republicans.
That and other concessions were made official Friday, when the House Budget Committee released a revised version of the budget bill that dropped a handful of contested provisions in a bid to pick up Republican support.
Ultimately, House leaders are still confident about winning approval of the budget bill before the end of next week. The numbers are still on their side. The vote will come close on the heels of their triumph on the GOP's ambitious plan to overhaul Medicare.
Yet if the Medicare bill involved more high-profile political risks, the budget bill potentially cuts closer to the bone for an even broader array of voters, embodying as it does cuts and changes in a mind-numbing array of government programs including Medicaid, farm subsidies, government pensions, student loans and welfare.
Many members confess that they do not have a clue what all is in the bill, which means that they also cannot be sure what pain it might inflict on their constituents.
"We're just kind of praying that someone knows what they're doing," said Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.).
As the political stakes get higher and higher, nerves are beginning to fray--both Gingrich's and those of his colleagues. Last week, a leadership meeting among farm-state Republicans degenerated into a shouting match so loud that the Capitol Police interrupted it to make sure everything was all right. Gingrich is snapping at people in the endless meetings, sources close to him said, and is seeming to run out of patience with members trying to win concessions in exchange for their votes.
"The Speaker is clearly exasperated," said one House Republican who has attended many meetings with Gingrich in the last week. "He hasn't gone off the deep end, but he's been under a lot of strain for a long period of time."
In a tribute to the enormous political stakes in the budget bill, Gingrich's deep immersion in the details mark a sharp departure from the leadership style he seemed to patent in the early months of his reign as Speaker.
While Republicans pushed through the "contract with America" during Congress' first 100 days, Gingrich delegated the job of building coalitions, counting votes and shepherding legislation to others. He himself weighed in only rarely, such as when the House nearly rejected a big appropriations bill cutting an array of popular social programs.
"He's there at crunch time," Ronald M. Peters, director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Study Center at the University of Oklahoma, said of this approach. "He's there when the Speaker needs to be there, when only his status and credibility could make the process work."
Increasingly, however, as the legislative crunch-points come tumbling one after another at a faster and faster pace during the final months of this historic session, those moments when only the Speaker can make things happen are occurring almost daily.
In the case of Medicare, Gingrich took charge from the beginning as chief draftsman, salesman, teacher and wheeler-dealer.
When he presented the proposal to the House Republican Conference, he lectured like the college professor he once was, bluntly telling lawmakers who were chatting among themselves to leave the room if they were not going to listen. He masterminded the legislative and political strategy for selling the bill and, in the endgame this week, cut the deals necessary to win its passage.
Winning approval of the Medicare bill posed a stiff test of his leadership because Republicans enjoy a narrow 233-201 majority. With few Democrats expected to vote for GOP initiatives, Gingrich can afford to lose few Republicans and still triumph. Small groups of Republicans have enormous leverage to extract concessions from the leadership to secure their support for the measure.
That's why Gingrich spent hours and hours meeting Republicans in his office, listening to their gripes and trying to massage their votes into place. That's how he managed to quell a potential rebellion over the Medicare bill by rural Republicans, who said their districts would be shortchanged.
As Medicare gives way to the even more diffuse budget bill, the process clearly is wearing Gingrich down. "I'm sick and tired of people trying to leverage this up to the last minute," one lawmaker recalled Gingrich grousing.
The bargaining has not always worked.
New Jersey Republicans, whose home state has a huge elderly population and whose hospitals depend heavily on Medicaid and Medicare, have been badgering Gingrich for weeks about proposed changes in those programs. In a letter sent to members of the delegation just before the Medicare vote, Gingrich promised several changes to benefit New Jersey.
Nonetheless, four of the six Republicans who voted against the Medicare bill were from New Jersey, including Dick Zimmer, a junior member on whom Gingrich had bestowed a seat on the Ways and Means Committee this year. Gingrich was reportedly furious at Zimmer's defection.
"I didn't put him on Ways and Means to have him vote against Medicare," Gingrich told some of his colleagues.
Even as Gingrich and his lieutenants were assembling the votes for the Medicare bill last week, they were also making numerous concessions to win the votes for next week's budget measure. Under pressure from Northeastern Republicans with big labor constituencies and other GOP moderates, the leadership has agreed to drop a proposal to repeal the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay the local prevailing wage to construction workers. It was stripped from the revised budget released by the Budget Committee on Friday.
Facing rebellion among freshman Republicans who are determined to swing an ax at the base of the federal bureaucracy, Republican leaders overrode their committee chairmen and inserted into the revised budget a plan for abolishing the Commerce Department that is more radical than the plans drafted by key House committees.
In a move likely to please party conservatives and the GOP's Cuban American supporters, the Budget Committee also announced Friday that it was folding into the bill an unrelated measure aimed at tightening economic sanctions against Cuba--a bill passed by the House and Senate that President Clinton has threatened to veto.
Party leaders also agreed to drop a provision that would put in private hands the Southeastern Power Assn., one of five regional agencies that provide federally subsidized hydroelectric power. The proposal, approved by the House Public Lands and Resources Committee, ran into opposition from Republicans in the region. Leading the charge was Gingrich's fellow Georgia Republican, Rep. Charlie Norwood.
Other farm-related issues in the budget are now posing the single biggest obstacle to passage of the budget reconciliation bill. The budget is supposed to cut more than $13 billion from farm subsidy programs, and Gingrich is backing a plan drafted by Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to do so. However, the Agriculture Committee deadlocked over the issue.
Gingrich supported putting Roberts' bill into the revised budget measure, but many Republicans representing farm interests are bitterly opposed.
"We've got members on two different planets rotating in two different spheres several galaxies apart," said Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Republican Conference.
In combing through the rank-and-file to nail down support for the budget measure, Gingrich will find that members have varying degrees of readiness to plunge into battle. Many of his young shock troops see this as a simple vote because they have been campaigning for years on the demand for a balanced budget.
"This is a slam dunk for me," said Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). Others are nervous about the vast scope of the bill and its uncertain consequences. "Not a lot of people know what is in it yet," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).
In the end, however, Gingrich may be able to count on a lot of his troops falling in line for the same reason many have in the past: because the political cost to the party of losing is too great.
Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), who had joined other GOP moderates in signing a letter to Gingrich calling for major changes in the bill, nonetheless said he would probably vote for it. "Frankly, the reconciliation bill is the whole ball of wax," he said. "Every Republican could find a handful of reasons to vote 'no,' but it would be a mistake."