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NEWS ANALYSIS : Clout of House GOP Freshmen Put to Big Test

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the budget showdown of 1995 enters its most sensitive stage, the spotlight is focused on Capitol Hill’s reigning heavyweights: House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. But behind the scenes, the chains of government increasingly are being jerked by small fry like David M. McIntosh, Sam Brownback and Mark Edward Souder.

McIntosh, Brownback and Souder are just three members of the big, rambunctious freshman class of House Republicans that is having a powerful influence on GOP budget strategy on the eve of a likely government shutdown and possible debt default. They are holding major budget bills hostage to their pet projects. They are communicating by a fax network that has already helped kill two appropriation bills. And their aversion to compromise is saturating budget politics with its current tenor of intransigence.

The final stages of the budget process pose the biggest test yet of the clout and savvy of the House Republican freshman class--and just as important, of Gingrich’s ability to lead them. Until recently, the Speaker has been able to use their reputation for obstinacy to his advantage. But he now faces the challenge of passing budget measures that almost certainly will require compromises that the freshmen find objectionable.

In a preliminary skirmish that speaks volumes about the extent--and limits--of freshman clout, House GOP leaders last week acceded to demands that two bills needed to keep the government afloat include two items on the freshman wish list: abolition of the Commerce Department and new restrictions on lobbying by nonprofit groups. But when those issues threatened to snarl the bills in a messy intraparty fight with Senate Republicans, the freshmen agreed to back down.

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Critics, including some of their fellow Republicans, see the freshmen’s modus operandi--the non-negotiable demands, the lines drawn in the sand--as the political equivalent of a temper tantrum that threatens to undercut the party’s larger goals. “They get bogged down on side issues and threaten to scuttle the big targets,” said a senior House Republican who asked not to be named.

Other Republican leaders still consider the freshman class an important weapon in their war to reduce the size and scope of government. “They’re the fail-safe,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), who has led the GOP drive to balance the budget by the year 2002. “In case there’s a groundswell to take an easy road, they are there to back me up.”

Elected in the sweep that gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, the freshmen personify the anti-government uprising that made 1994 a landmark election. Almost two-thirds of them came to Congress with no political experience--and proud of it. Their campaigns sang from the same hymnal of anti-Establishment tunes: balancing the budget, shrinking government, cleaning up the mess in Washington. They were loyal foot soldiers for Gingrich, providing much of the firepower needed to get his ambitious agenda through the House during their heady first 100 days in power.

But the freshmen have also cast themselves as an independent force to be reckoned with. They network over breakfast, caucus in crises, throw their collective weight behind each other’s causes. And they have on several occasions thrown sand in the gears of their own party’s leadership.

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They helped block a bill funding the National Endowment for the Arts, at least temporarily, when they thought GOP leaders were not moving quickly enough to kill the agency. They helped defeat two compromise spending bills that they thought conceded too much to the less conservative Senate. As a cohesive bloc of 73 members in a Republican conference that rules the House by only a 33-vote margin, the freshmen cannot be easily discounted.

“That gives us a great deal of leverage,” said McIntosh of Indiana, a leader of the freshman class. “If we say: ‘This has to happen,’ it’s become a serious matter.”

They have monitored budget developments with the religious intensity of true believers patrolling for apostasy. A core group of freshmen known as the “new Federalists"--coordinated by Brownback of Kansas--meets at 8:30 a.m. once or twice a week in a conference room of the House Budget Committee. A few of those Republicans, including Souder of Indiana, started a system for spotting what they consider to be unacceptable sellouts in appropriation bills after the measures emerge from House-Senate conference committees. After combing through the bills, Souder’s staff faxes a “red alert” to freshmen if the bill exceeds budget targets, a “blue alert” if it has other major problems and a simple white notice to detail more routine questions or concerns. It was through that alert system that freshmen mobilized opposition to a defense appropriation bill that weakened anti-abortion language they supported.

In addition to their bill-by-bill review of appropriations, the freshmen have banded together to draw the line on broader budget issues. In mid-September, Brownback rounded up signatures from more than 60 fellow freshmen and sent a letter to Gingrich spelling out the items they consider non-negotiable, including a seven-year timeline for balancing the budget and the elimination of the Commerce Department.

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The seven-year goal is widely shared by other House Republicans, but axing the Commerce Department is a cause that has been practically a class project for the freshmen all year. It is a pale shadow of the bold agenda they laid out early this year, when they called for the elimination of four Cabinet departments. But they found that the other three--Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development--all had loyal defenders within their own party.

Abolition of the Commerce Department has taken on almost totemic significance for the freshman class, an emblem of its desire to uproot parts of the federal bureaucracy, not just to trim it back.

“We ardently believe in delivering smaller government,” Brownback said. “This is a core plank of why we were elected in 1994.”

When it looked like the proposal to abolish the Commerce Department might be dropped from the omnibus budget measure, Brownback and other freshmen wrote to Dole and Gingrich earlier this month, threatening to vote against a short-term increase in the federal debt ceiling or the continuing resolution needed to keep the government operating in coming weeks, unless one of the measures contained abolition of the Commerce Department.

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GOP leaders faced a similar threat from freshmen over the proposal to impose new restrictions on lobbying by nonprofit groups that receive federal funds. That has been a rallying cry for McIntosh, who told the leadership that as many as 40 Republicans would vote against the continuing resolution unless the lobbying restrictions were included.

But those proposals put the House on a collision course with Republicans in the Senate, who wanted to keep the debt-limit measure and the continuing resolution clean of controversial provisions. Aware that House freshman demands were beginning to ruffle feathers in the Senate, McIntosh and others began making some bridge-building visits to senators. “I know people think the freshmen are a little bit uppity,” McIntosh acknowledged.

But they managed to ruffle still more feathers when the Senate was debating the lobbying and Commerce Department measures Thursday night. McIntosh and more than a dozen GOP freshmen marched over to the Senate floor to watch the proceedings. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), a senior senator who comes from the old school in which freshmen were seen but not heard, took umbrage at the invasion of the Senate sanctum.

“All the while I have been speaking, a House member has been standing over there laughing and grinning,” Byrd fumed. “That comes with very poor grace.”

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Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who had met privately with McIntosh, said the House newcomers did not seem to understand the obstacles to getting their wish list through the Senate, where the Democrats have far more power to slow or block the majority’s will. “These new members think Republicans in the Senate can cause all these things to evaporate,” Cochran said. “They just have to understand there has to be bipartisan consensus in the Senate.”

The freshmen are undeterred by their failure to win approval of the Commerce Department elimination and the lobbying prohibition as part of the current budget debate. But it is not the first time they have come up empty-handed in skirmishes with Democrats and less conservative Republicans over their signature causes. Earlier this year, the freshman-led crusade to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts eventually faltered. Term limits are dead. An anti-tax initiative they pushed early this year has dropped by the wayside. The latest casualty is campaign-finance reform, which seems destined for a quiet burial at the hands of a blue-ribbon commission.

But the freshmen pledge to plow on. They are already laying plans for next year to renew their campaign for abolishing Cabinet departments. Some hope to circumvent the leadership and force a vote on campaign-finance legislation.

“You get frustrated you didn’t get anything you want,” said Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.). “But that doesn’t dampen our zeal to come back and swing the ax another time at another opportunity.”

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