Despite a docket of unfinished business and the prospect of a national default, the House has now recessed for three weeks amid growing signs that the year-old Republican revolution has become mired in frustrations and internal squabbles.
Republican leaders describe the 24-day break as a delayed winter recess to give them a chance to plot new strategy and House members the opportunity to spend time in their districts. But Democratic critics contend that the break from regular business shows the Republican leadership cannot control its own membership and is running out of ideas after being checkmated by President Clinton on the balanced budget debate.
“They don’t know what to do. They are absolutely at a loss,” said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat and regular critic of the GOP.
Told some GOP lawmakers are complaining about lack of direction, a spokesman for House Speaker Newt Gingrich scoffed. “They shouldn’t have a gripe. The fact is we have just started planning the post-budget legislative agenda,” said Tony Blankley.
“Newt is going through the same process he has gone through before, whether it’s drawing up the Contract (with America) or planning the Medicare and Medicaid offensive,” Blankley said. “He is meeting with advisers. When he’s worked through a plan he will expand the circle, bring others in and present it.”
The recess distressed many Democrats, who worried that public opinion of Congress would plunge still lower if the House took a break after the least productive session of Congress since 1933.
Despite the frenzy of activity and long hours of the first year of the 104th Congress, only 89 bills were enacted into law. More than twice that number, 210, were enacted during the first year of President Clinton’s administration.
The hours leading up to adjournment Thursday were dominated by a behind-the-scenes drama over how and when to raise the federal debt ceiling to avoid the first default in the nation’s history. The debt ceiling must be raised from $4.9 trillion to $5.5 trillion so that the federal government can honor its commitments, say Treasury Department officials.
Eventually, the Republican leaders hastily drafted a measure aimed at guaranteeing the Social Security trust fund by raising the debt limit by $30 billion. Democrats objected to the GOP’s piecemeal approach but backed it unanimously.