Eight years after taking power, House Republicans are moving to jettison a rule they had established on the first day of their reign: a four-term limit on the office of House speaker.
The proposal, expected to be approved next week, would enable Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) to serve beyond the January 2007 limit that now binds him.
The impending change reflects the overwhelming popularity of Hastert, the low-key successor to the fiery Newt Gingrich of Georgia, among his rank and file. But it also is another sign of the waning of one of the most powerful political movements of the 1990s.
The move also shows Republicans bolstering their leadership options only weeks after replacing their beleaguered leader in the Senate, Trent Lott of Mississippi, with a more-polished, less-polarizing figure, Tennessee’s Bill Frist.
In 1994, when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, Republicans embraced term limits as a cornerstone of their campaign nationwide. They argued that limiting the tenure and leadership roles of members would allow citizens rooted in their communities to take the place of entrenched career politicians.
Now, with Republicans leading the legislative and executive branches, they have no need to stoke anti-incumbent fires among the electorate. Instead, GOP leaders are stressing legislative experience and stability. Several GOP elected officials have had to extricate themselves from term-limit pledges.
In the House, the party will continue to limit committee chairmen to three terms. That rule has forced significant turnover in recent years.
But with members eager to win the flexibility to retain Hastert if he appears to be their strongest option, they are willing to change the rules.
“To the extent that the leadership of a body facilitates members’ achieving their goals, they support it,” said Gary W. Copeland, a congressional analyst at the University of Oklahoma. “When the leadership starts getting in the way of them achieving their personal and political goals, then they change the rules.”
Lott learned that lesson last month when he was forced out as Senate Republican leader over a racially divisive remark. Lott apologized repeatedly but was unable to rally his colleagues behind him because too many saw an opportunity to switch to the more appealing Frist.
Unlike Lott, Hastert is viewed as a conciliatory figure. He unified House Republicans in December 1998 after Gingrich’s stormy tenure and the sudden fall of another designated GOP leader, Bob Livingston of Louisiana, in a personal scandal.
Since rising to the speakership, Hastert, who turned 61 on Thursday, has helped preserve the Republican majority in the 2000 and 2002 elections and has staunchly advocated the Bush administration’s legislative agenda.
But the term-limit rule, adopted in 1995, would have barred him from continuing in the job beyond another four years and might have left him a lame duck as that time approached.
Seeking to erase that possibility, Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the incoming majority whip, said he plans to abolish the speaker’s limit when the new House convenes Tuesday.
At least one leading conservative voice denounced the proposal as a betrayal of principle. “If Republicans water down term limits, they will show they are falling prey to the same careerist impulses that they said had distanced Democrats from average Americans back in 1994,” the Wall Street Journal said in an editorial last week.
U.S. Term Limits, an advocacy group, joined in.
“It would be a shame for the Republican Party to eliminate the term limit on its highest [congressional] leader,” said Stacie Rumenap, the group’s executive director. “If term limits are good enough for the president of the United States, the speaker can live with term limits.”
But Blunt, in a statement issued Dec. 18, said that “given the tremendous respect in our conference for Speaker Hastert’s leadership, neither the House nor our conference is best served having a date certain for him to step down from that post.”
“Denny has virtually unprecedented support among our conference, and I look forward to many more years of working under his leadership. The House will benefit from this rule change, and I hope it will be adopted,” he said.
Other prominent House Republicans appear to be backing Blunt’s proposal. One GOP leadership aide predicted it would pass overwhelmingly. Hastert has said nothing about it.
On the Democratic side, spokeswomen for incoming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and incoming Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland had no comment on the Blunt proposal.
Politicians increasingly have found there is little penalty to abandoning term limits. Voters have returned to office several members of Congress in recent years who once pledged to limit their time in Washington but had changes of heart.
Frist is someone who faces the issue. In 1994, he won election to the Senate after saying he planned to serve just two six-year terms. He won a second term in 2000. Now the incoming Senate majority leader, who has built a public image as a doctor-turned-legislator, must decide whether to leave Congress to become a private citizen again in January 2007.
A Frist spokesman, Nick Smith, said the Tennessee senator “never made a pledge” to limit his terms. “He said it was his intent” to do so, Smith said -- leaving some wiggle room for an about-face.