The 104th Congress, which began with a bang two years ago, ended with a whimper as Republicans adopted a strategy of compromise to gain passage of major legislation.
The move away from fiery confrontation helped the GOP establish a record of accomplishment that the party hopes will convince voters to renew its control of the House and Senate on Nov. 5.
Republicans can take credit for trimming $53 billion from federal spending over the past two years while passing legislation with far-reaching consequences such as the welfare, farm, telecommunications and immigration bills. But they also were forced, in the end, to holster their revolutionary zeal.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., acknowledged that compromise was the hallmark of the last months of the 104th Congress, in part because of concern that voters might seek revenge in the Nov. 5 election for the two unpopular government shutdowns last year.
He said he hopes “the important thing” Americans will remember about the closing days of Congress “is that we got the work done” without closing government a third time.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said the first GOP-controlled Congress in 40 years produced “a remarkable” list of legislative accomplishments.
He blamed President Clinton and the Democrats for blocking many of the more ambitious Republican goals, such as a balanced federal budget and tax cuts.
DeLay also cited what he described as Clinton’s inability to keep his word in negotiations as one reason why the Republican leadership decided early on not to force a confrontation over the fiscal 1997 budget.
He acknowledged, however, that there were plenty of policy disagreements among Republicans that allowed Clinton to get most of the additional funding he wanted for education and other programs next year.
“The reality is that we may have a (GOP) majority, but we don’t have a conservative majority,” DeLay said.
Nevertheless, as Republicans head off to campaign for re-election, they leave a decidedly conservative imprint on the nation.
For example, they fulfilled a promise to give states more control over federal programs by forcing an overhaul of Depression-era welfare programs. Congress also cracked down on illegal immigration, gave future presidents a line-item veto to kill questionable spending items and passed a landmark farm bill which lifts 60 years of restrictions on what farmers can plant. The telecommunications bill replaced government regulation of the communications industry with increased competition.
During one week alone, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, helped guide to passage the welfare overhaul bill as well as $26 billion in small-business tax relief coupled with an increase in the minimum wage. That same week, Archer worked out a compromise with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that paved the way for passage of a health insurance portability bill to make medical coverage more accessible and affordable for millions of Americans.
Archer called it “one of the most productive weeks in the history of the Congress.” But he conceded it would not have been possible without the support of Democrats. “We did it with bipartisanship,” he said.
Democrats claim that the 104th Congress would have been a flop had GOP leaders not sought their help in putting together many legislative packages. Democrats pressured Republicans into moving a minimum wage measure and insisted that the nation’s safe drinking water laws be toughened.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Republicans were forced to make a “remarkable retreat” from many “excessive positions” because of a public backlash against their confrontational tactics.
Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said “it took them a year and half,” but Republican leaders finally learned that by compromising, they could get a lot of what they wanted piece by piece while protecting themselves politically through embracing popular legislation.