After finding itself eclipsed by the Senate's new Democratic majority, the Republican-dominated House regains center stage this week, with GOP leaders facing stiff tests of their ability to modify or derail campaign finance reform, patient protection proposals and other key legislation.
The goal is to spare President Bush from politically perilous decisions. But as Congress returns from a weeklong recess, the House Republican chieftains must keep their increasingly wayward ranks in line. Having lost several recent votes on politically sensitive matters--such as offshore oil drilling, Mexican truck traffic and funding for the National Endowment for the Arts--the GOP leaders are cracking the whip on issues that have more far-reaching consequences.
Two controversial matters initially are at stake: Whether patients in managed health care plans will gain new rights and whether the next campaign will be conducted under new laws aimed at reducing the influence of big money in politics.
Also on the horizon are budget decisions that will determine whether Congress' appetite for education aid, a defense buildup and hometown projects wind up spending the government into another deficit.
The outcome of those debates should prove crucial to framing the agenda for the 2002 campaign, in which the two parties once again will battle for control of the closely divided Congress.
The patients' rights and campaign finance bills were the major issues that kept the spotlight on the Senate earlier this year. In past years, versions of both measures passed the House over the objections of GOP leaders but died in the Senate. Now, the leaders are trying to persuade other Republicans to drop their past support and back alternatives more acceptable to Bush.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) was bullish on the leaders' prospects on both fronts, but more confident of their ability to prevail on campaign finance reform. "Our chances of winning on that are higher, but our chances of winning both are good," Armey said.
The looming battles also pose a test for House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who is struggling to keep his troops in line on campaign finance reform--and to encourage Republicans who previously backed patient protection bills to stick with the Democrat-backed measure.
Stakes for Bush 'Extremely High'
Bush has much to lose if the GOP leaders do not prevail. At a time when polls show his popularity dropping among swing voters, Bush would rather not veto politically popular legislation. But neither does he want to sign bills that alienate Republican conservatives.
"The stakes are extremely high," said Marshall Wittmann, a conservative analyst at the Hudson Institute. "If Gephardt is able to hold those coalitions on those two issues, the way is paved for either two presidential vetoes or two signing ceremonies of legislation" the White House wanted to turn out differently.
As these issues are hashed out, the coming weeks will provide the first sustained look at how the House will operate now that it is the GOP's lone redoubt of power in Congress.
Washington's spotlight had been focused on the altered dynamics in the Senate, where power changed hands in early June after Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont announced that he was leaving the GOP to become an independent. Democrats flexed their muscles almost immediately by bringing up the patient protection legislation that Bush opposed. It was the first test of strength for new Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who shepherded the bill to passage with help from defections by a handful of moderate Republicans on key votes.
As minority leader, Daschle also had played a leading role in Senate passage of the campaign finance bill in early April.
Now, with both bills pending in the House, pressure is growing on moderate Republicans in the chamber. These Republicans allied with a large bloc of Democrats to pass the earlier versions of each measure in the late 1990s. This year, such a coalition again appears essential to House passage.
Gephardt argues that the sway Republican House leaders have over the moderates is weaker than ever. "Their ability to convince moderates to vote in lock-step is eroding," Gephardt said, citing recent House approval of amendments the GOP leaders opposed to ban Mexican trucks from U.S. roads and to block oil drilling in parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
But Armey said those votes were quirks that did not bespeak a broader decline in party discipline. He said some members voted their local interests in a way that they would not on issues of a more sweeping nature.
The first test of who is right should start this week, when the House takes up campaign finance reform.
In 1998 and 1999, the House approved legislation co-sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) to ban "soft money," the unlimited contributions to political parties from corporations, unions and individuals that have become an increasingly controversial and important part of the political system. Senate filibusters killed both measures.
But now that a similar bill has passed the Senate, House approval is not a certainty for a variety of reasons.
GOP Leaders Push for Alternative Bill
The GOP leaders are pushing harder than ever to persuade other Republicans to back an alternative, sponsored by Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), that would limit but not ban soft money. Just before Congress adjourned for the Fourth of July recess, officials of the House GOP campaign committee met with renegade party members who previously supported the Shays-Meehan bill and each Republican freshman to tout the Ney alternative.
Armey said he saw signs of movement in party ranks, though he named no specific members who had switched their positions.
Still, GOP support for the Shays-Meehan bill already has been undercut by retirements and defeats in the 2000 elections. Of the 54 House Republicans who voted for Shays-Meehan in 1999, only 43 still are in Congress--and not all of them are co-sponsoring the version of the measure introduced this year.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, face their own struggles in maintaining their party's once-solid support for Shays-Meehan. Gephardt has been meeting for weeks with other House Democrats, especially blacks and Latinos, who are having second thoughts about the bill because they think it will hurt the party's ability to mobilize voters and compete financially with the GOP.
Democratic support seems more solid for the patients' protection bill, which the House also will consider soon. But the GOP House leaders are leaning hard on their rank and file in the debate, which centers on how far Congress should go in allowing patients to sue their private health insurers concerning disputes about care.
A bill co-sponsored by Reps. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) that would give patients broad legal rights passed the House in 1999 with support from 68 Republicans. However, many of those Republicans signaled their willingness to compromise by also voting for more limited versions of the legislation.
Those Republicans are considered likely candidates for supporting a bill backed by the White House and the GOP leaders who would allow patients' lawsuits in more limited circumstances. According to an analysis by Congressional Quarterly, 21 Republicans voted only for the Norwood-Dingell bill and not for the weaker versions in 1999. And of those, only 17 still are in Congress.
Bush has joined the efforts to win over Republicans to the alternative he favors, inviting groups of lawmakers to the White House to discuss the issue. Still, GOP leadership sources acknowledge it will be tough to pry support away from the broader bill.
"I'm not going to tell you they have the votes yet, because I don't think they do," said John Feehery, press secretary to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
But Armey, interviewed on "Fox News Sunday," said Republicans would benefit this year from something they lacked in 1999: a good alternative to the Democratic bill. This year, Armey said, the Republican alternative would protect patients' rights without raising health insurance costs as much as the Norwood-Dingell bill.
Much of the rest of the congressional session will be dominated by budget decisions: drafting the 13 appropriations bills needed to keep the government running after the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
The challenge facing both parties is that spending pressures from both sides of the aisle threaten to push the budget back into deficit. Already, House versions of several appropriations bills exceed Bush's requests.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, also is warning that the $1.35-trillion tax cut enacted at Bush's behest has put Congress on track to dip into Social Security and Medicare trust funds unless lawmakers exercise a restraint on spending that so far has been lacking.
Although Congress routinely dipped into these funds in the past, doing so after the government had nudged back into a surplus could be politically dicey. As a result, the White House will be expecting the House GOP leaders to rein in spending as much as they can.