Wednesday it begins, the takeover of Capitol Hill by a Republican-led Congress committed to making a skeptical nation feel good about government by delivering on its promises.
“We were elected to keep our word, we will keep our word, we have already begun,” said Newt Gingrich of Georgia, poised to ascend the rostrum Wednesday as the first Republican speaker of the House in two generations.
In a pep talk to his House colleagues last month, Gingrich declared, “The deeper point for the American people is: The changes are going to be real, they’re going to be substantive … they’re going to make a difference in the government and a difference in your lives.”
Immediately after Gingrich and new Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas officially take their posts Wednesday, the Republicans will plunge into their ambitious agenda for the first 100 days promised during the fall election campaign.
Taking the lead will be the House, where nearly all the GOP members signed a “Contract with America,” pledging to bring a package of tax cuts, welfare reform, regulatory relief, new limits on lawsuits and government reforms to a vote during that three-and-a-half-month period.
The contract, just the first phase of the Republicans’ broader scheme for reshaping federal government, will keep the lawmakers working nearly non-stop until Easter, forsaking the generous winter breaks that contributed to an image of congressional laziness.
Senate Republicans made a less sweeping commitment before the election to work for the passage of many of the same items. But postelection GOP fervor for meeting the terms of the contract, which many in the party insist provided the underpinning for their stunning Election Day triumph, is now driving the agenda in both chambers.
Even so, the task is daunting.
Some elements of the contract may not even pass the House, where the Republicans have a slender majority of 230-204. Getting them through the Senate, where the GOP has only 54 of the 60 votes it would need to stop a filibuster, will be a more difficult matter.
“I think there’s going to be some reality set in,” said Dole, who also served as majority leader in the mid1980s. “The House can move much more quickly than we can,” he noted during an interview last week.
“I assume the Democrats here have determined they only need 41 votes to hold things up,” he said with typical wry humor.
The resistance of some Republicans to a few contract items - such as congressional term limits - may also be a problem in the Senate.
“It seems to me the real story this year is not going to be the conflict between the Republicans and the Democrats or the Congress and the White House, but between the House and the Senate,” said Rep.elect Robert L. Ehrlich, R-Md.. In the House, Gingrich has consolidated so much authority in his office, historians say, he could well become the most powerful speaker since Democrat Joseph G. Cannon, who held the post from 1903 to 1911.
Unlike recent predecessors, Gingrich oversees all committee assignments and patronage jobs. He has also weakened committee control of legislation.
“But the Senate,” Ehrlich observed, “is 100 independent power centers.”
Democrats are already predicting that Republicans will achieve little more than cosmetic changes that will have no impact on the economic issues that concern most voters.
“Their ‘Contract on America,’ whether you like it or hate it, is all slogans and hot-buttons, without so much as a wink or nod about real jobs or real opportunities,” said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat who slips from from majority leader to minority leader.
“The Republicans should enjoy their majority while they have it, because in two short years, it’ll be gone,” Gephardt asserted in a recent speech.
Gephardt and Thomas A. Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who takes over Wednesday as Senate minority leader, are moving toward a strategy of forcing Republicans to spell out how they would cut spending in order to eliminate the budget deficit by 2002. That’s the deadline promised in their proposed balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
“We think it’s very important for people to know what the consequences would be before the amendment passes,” Daschle said in an interview. “We think it’s up to them to be specific.”
Daschle said his party has a responsibility to block the Republicans if they try to take action that is “extreme.” As an example, he said some Republicans are talking about cutting federal aid to disabled children.
In response to Democratic criticism, House GOP leaders have promised to take up by the end of February an unusual procedure for voting on spending reductions needed to offset the $200 billion in tax cuts promised in the contract. The Republicans say those cuts will be made before any votes on tax cuts.
But Democrats in the House and the Senate and the Clinton White House all appear confused about exactly how to respond to the Republican steamroller. Dole observed that Gephardt’s decision last month to upstage the president’s tax cut proposal by announcing his own similar plan two days earlier is a clear sign of “disarray.”