Not once, but four times, a constitutional amendment to limit the terms of lawmakers failed Wednesday night on the House floor, leaving hard-core supporters of term limits feeling betrayed - but not by the Democrats who voted against it in droves.
They’re angry at Republicans, and they’re accusing them of purposely tanking the issue.
“The Democrats have an awful lot of blame to carry,” said Paul Jacob, executive director of US Term Limits, a grassroots lobbying group with 85,000 members that supports three terms in the House and two in the Senate.
“But ultimately, this was a planned failure on the part of the GOP leadership.”
House Republicans say they never promised to pass a term limits measure; all their Contract with America called for was a vote on the floor. But term limit advocates said they at least expected GOP leaders to push the issue hard. Republicans say they had to give their members options.
“You’ve got to have some room for honest disagreement,” said freshman Rep. Enid Greene Waldholtz, a Republican from Utah who moves in the leadership’s circle.
Because it put members’ Washington careers on the line, Republican leaders didn’t make term limits a loyalty test. Arms were not twisted, pressure was not applied, and there was enough political cover to shade an elephant on the House floor. Even Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, responsible for whipping Republicans into line, voted against term limits.
Further straining the relationship between term limit advocates and the GOP was the belief that Republican leaders who said they supported term limits didn’t really mean it.
“If we Republicans can straighten out the House, make it work properly and efficiently and responsibly to the American people, then I think maybe the nation’s desire for term limits will be diminished,” said Majority Leader Dick Armey, shortly after Republicans swept the November elections.
Republicans rightly point out that even if all 230 in their party had supported a single version of term limits, they would still have been well short of the two-thirds necessary to approve a constitutional amendment. And term limit groups rightly point out that Republicans had the votes to pass a legislative proposal supporting state efforts, rather than a constitutional amendment.
But the party that championed term limits was all over the map. Some supported the hard-line three-term measure; others supported a six-term measure that would have allowed states to impose shorter terms; and still others voted for a six-term measure that would have pre-empted state-passed limits.