At a recent White House meeting with President Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich remarked that if he caved in on the stalemated budget talks, his firebrand GOP freshmen would be looking for a new leader.
Freshmen like Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia.
“In my district,” said Barr, “people are saying, ‘Don’t back down!’ We were sent here to do these things, and if that means we’ve got to hold the president’s feet to the fire, then we’ll do it.”
Seventy-three strong, the Republican newcomers in the House are wielding an unusual amount of influence for a freshman class.
They won their elections promising to shake things up in Washington - and they’ve done just that. They bucked GOP leaders earlier this fall by helping defeat a defense spending bill that didn’t include an anti-abortion provision. Many were upset with Gingrich when he agreed with President Clinton on a loan plan for Mexico.
And now they’ve been among the most consistent advocates of shutting down the federal government, if that’s what it takes to get Clinton to agree to balance the budget.
“Our obstinance comes from the knowledge that we are right,” said Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla.
Whether they’re out of step with Gingrich on the budget impasse is another matter.
Some Democrats have suggested that Gingrich has created a Frankenstein monster in the House, where the master is now controlled by his creation and unable to negotiate a compromise in the great debate over national priorities and balancing the budget.
But among many Republicans, the feeling is that Gingrich and his loyal acolytes are one and the same.
“The bottom line goals of the freshmen are exactly those shared by Speaker Gingrich,” said Mississippi Rep. Roger Wicker, president of the GOP’s freshman caucus. “The freshman class is right in there supporting the speaker, and he’s doing an excellent job of holding the line against any deviation from our goal of reaching a balanced budget in seven years.”
Some outside analysts agree with the Democrats that Gingrich’s latitude to deal with Clinton has been limited by the ideological fervor of the 73 Republican newcomers - more than 50 of whom defeated Democratic incumbents in 1994 to attain office.
“That group is flexing its muscle and hemming in his maneuvering room,” said Herb Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University.
But it is also clear, Asher added, that Gingrich’s own objectives are served by the notion that his hands are tied by the unyielding mood of the freshman bloc.
“It’s pretty clear that Gingrich is using them as an excuse not to deal more flexibly with the president,” Asher said. “There seems to be a mutually reinforcing mechanism working here that inhibits the chances for successful negotiation.”
A close look at the basic demands of the GOP freshmen a balanced budget, a root-and-branch reordering of the welfare system, and cutbacks in the growth of health-care spending - reveals a clear parallel with the themes long advocated by Gingrich.
The Georgia Republican’s campaign manifesto, which he dubbed the Contract With America, set forth those and other imperatives and provided the electoral underpinnings for pressing a common agenda once Republicans took control of Congress.
“If you look at their agenda,” said eight-term Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., a Gingrich supporter, “you can see they used Newt as the model not only for their campaign messages but also for their (legislative) goals.”
The symbiotic relationship between Gingrich and the freshmen is further cemented, Dreier said, by their conviction that he helped get them elected and by the “understanding that he would not be speaker were it not for them.”
Given the political danger that lurks in a continuing deadlock - particularly with poll after poll indicating that the public sides with Clinton in the fight - Gingrich is faced now with calculating whether his devotion to the agenda could cost his party its majority in House elections next year.
“There are already some signs that a few of the diehards, especially in districts they won by just a few percentage points, may be backing off a shade from some of their rigid positions,” said Larry N. Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University. “Political reality, I think, is setting in as some of them look toward re-election.”