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An Idea Whose Time Won’t Come Term Limits, While Popular With Voters, Still Face Long Odds In Congress

The House plans to try again this week to pass a constitutional amendment limiting the terms of members of Congress, but like the last time the issue came up nearly two years ago, the proposal is virtually certain to fail.

The issue is still alive because the idea of term limits remains popular among voters. But supporters and opponents both cite several reasons why the measure is likely to be rejected, not the least of which is that incumbents don’t want to lose their jobs.

Lawmakers agree that if a secret ballot were cast on the amendment, it would fail to get even a simple majority, yet alone the two-thirds majority required for adopting changes in the Constitution and sending them to the states for ratification.

Beyond that, the vote itself is likely to be structured by House leaders to give members a choice among two or more proposed amendments. This would ensure that lawmakers will get the chance to show constituents that they had voted for the idea, while at the same time making certain that no single amendment gets enough votes to pass.

Essentially, that’s how leaders in the last Congress finessed the issue. In that go-round, four separate amendments were brought to the floor. By the time the dust had settled, none had passed as different groups of lawmakers split their votes among the options.

But more than 300 House members got to go home and brag about how they had voted to limit their own terms. If 290 all had voted for the same amendment, it would have passed.

“We’re afraid that that’s what’s going to happen this time around, too,” said Jonathan Ferry, spokesman for the 5-year-old U.S. Term Limits, the most assertive of several groups pushing for limits.

Although polls show that term limits are popular with voters, there is an ongoing debate over their desirability.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., derides them as “an affront to the right of citizens to choose whomever they want” to serve in Congress.

Other critics have questioned their necessity. In this decade alone, seven out of every 10 House seats have turned over and about half of the 100 Senate seats have changed hands. In this Congress, the 105th, which reported for duty last month, one-third of the 435 House members have served for two years or less, and more than half have served for four years or less.

Yet, strong feeling persists among term-limit advocates that a systemic problem exists that biases Congress toward serving special interests by doling out special tax breaks or pumping money into their pet programs - and that many Americans feel cut out of the circle of power.

Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., the prime sponsor of a term-limits amendment in the Senate which he vows to bring up even if the House fails to pass one, said its adoption would liberate lawmakers to address the tough issues - such as curbing the costs of Medicare and other entitlements.

At the moment, there appear to be at least four amendments that could come up in the House.

One is sponsored by Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., and is backed by House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and most other senior Republicans. It calls for a limit of six terms (12 years) for House members and two terms (12 years) for senators. Gingrich says House members should be able to serve the same number of years as senators.

But U.S. Term Limits and other term-limit purists hate it. “We want it clear off the table,” Ferry fumed. “It does very, very little to change the system in a constructive way.”

U.S. Term Limits is backing a proposal by Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., who wants to hold House members to three terms (6 years) and senators to two (12 years).

“A three-term limit gets rid of the seniority system, makes every election more competitive and replaces career legislators with citizen legislators,” Ferry said.

Freshman Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is backing a third proposal that would amend the Constitution to permit states to set congressional term limits. Ferry says that is acceptable to U.S. Term Limits, although it prefers Inglis’ plan.

And a fourth amendment, by Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would amend the Constitution to create four-year (instead of two-year) House terms and restrict members to three terms (12 years). It also has drawn sharp opposition from the term-limits lobby.

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