Congressional Republicans, capitulating under political pressure, passed a long-awaited $8.6 billion disaster-relief bill on Thursday - but not before the process revealed sharp divisions within the party leadership and became a public relations fiasco reminiscent of the government shutdown 18 months ago.
After weeks of trying to add two provisions objectionable to President Clinton and congressional Democrats, Republican leaders conceded defeat. By overwhelming margins, both the House and the Senate approved a version of the bill that eliminated one of the provisions and watered down the other. Clinton promptly signed the bill.
“Mr. President, we give you a perfect bill - it’s over,” Rep. Robert Livingston, R-La., who heads the House Appropriations Committee, said just before the House vote. But Livingston added, “It was a sloppy process; it was an ugly process.”
The political dust-up ended in an embarrassing public surrender for the Republicans. But it did more than that: It aggravated differences between moderates and conservatives in the rank and file. And, perhaps even more harmful in the long term, it exposed fault lines in the leadership itself when some of Speaker Newt Gingrich’s lieutenants ignored his private warnings against turning the issue into another round of political brinksmanship with the White House.
“I have no idea why the leadership didn’t understand that it was bad policy and bad politics from the start to follow this path,” said Rep. Marge Roukema, a Republican moderate from New Jersey. “Why do we always have these lines in the sand and then withdraw?”
The battle lines in the fight formed almost without warning and, for the White House and congressional Democrats, quite unexpectedly. Only three weeks before, the Republicans, the White House and most congressional Democrats had agreed to a much-heralded plan to balance the budget.
There was general agreement among all parties from the outset to support an emergency spending bill that would provide disaster relief for 35 states - among them flood-ravaged North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota - and also would offer a vehicle for nearly $2 billion to replenish accounts for peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and elsewhere.
Before the bill even reached the floor, however, Republican leaders in the House attached two provisions they knew were unpopular with the president but that were much wanted by the party’s conservatives. One would have prevented further government shutdowns during budget disagreements; the other would have prohibited the Census Bureau from using computer-aided sampling in the 2000 census.
The Republicans gambled that the president would be forced to accept the provisions rather than face the politically damaging prospect of denying much-needed aid to flood victims.
In the end, however, the Republican gamble failed. The Democrats were able to return to a now familiar theme: that the Republicans are hard-line extremists trying to use a ploy - not unlike the one used during the government shutdown - to load a much-needed bill with ideologically driven provisions.
And Gingrich, who had in past disputes displayed so much control over his lieutenants and his rank and file, was unable this time to persuade them to soften their stand temporarily.
He and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott proposed, unsuccessfully, that Congress pass a smaller disaster-aid bill free of the provisions, then return later to attach their provisions to a bill that would contain the remainder of the aid.
That weakening of Gingrich’s leadership position was partly his own doing.
Under a barrage of ethics complaints at the beginning of the 105th Congress in January, Gingrich turned over much of the day-to-day control of the House to his second in command, Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the majority leader. Not only was he encouraged to become the leading spokesman for the majority, but Armey, who always has been highly popular among many of the younger and more aggressively conservative members, also took on even more power, including setting policy.
Gradually, friction developed between Gingrich and Armey. Aides said the friction revolved in large part around Livingston, the Appropriations Committee chairman who has clashed bitterly and repeatedly with the majority leader.
Livingston adamantly has opposed using his appropriation bills for extraneous political riders, but for most of the time during the last Congress, he wound up on the losing side of that argument.
Since the beginning of the new Congress, however, Gingrich has tended to stand behind Livingston and, consequently, against Armey, who has championed conservative causes and efforts to force ideological riders onto spending bills.
House Republicans are facing squabbles at much-lower levels, too.
For example, it was a decision by more than 20 Republicans - most of them moderates and including Roukema - to openly support a so-called “clean” disaster bill on Wednesday that forced the new bill that was voted on Thursday.
That show of muscle by the moderate wing comes at a time when House Republican factions are fighting over one of the leadership prizes: the vice chairmanship of the Republican Conference. That job is held by Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, who has announced that she is leaving Congress. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, a third-term conservative Republican from Washington, is widely seen as the favorite of Gingrich and at least 100 other members, including many of the moderates.
But complaining that Dunn is the leadership’s “hand-picked” choice, Rep. Jim Nussle of Iowa has mounted a challenge, lining up at least 50 mostly conservative backers. Nussle also has been highly vocal about problems and miscues with the leadership, and much of it seems directed toward Gingrich.
In an interview last week in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, he called for “a top-to-bottom review of the job performance of the leadership for the last six months.”
But that consideration was overshadowed in the last week by public relations concerns.
For weeks, a rising tide of letters and editorials hinted at what a poll by CNN-USA Today on Wednesday confirmed: that the Republicans were taking a political beating on the disaster-relief issue. The survey of 651 adults showed that 55 percent blamed Republicans for the impasse, with only 25 percent blaming Clinton.
“It was clear two weeks ago that we had lost the public relations battle over this issue,” a senior aide with the Republican leadership confided to reporters on Wednesday night as Lott and Gingrich negotiated political damage control.
Gingrich claimed a sliver of a political victory, saying that Senate Democrats had agreed to debate the government shutdown question and that the White House for the first time had agreed to study the feasibility of census sampling.
1. ROLL CALL Here are Idaho and Washington votes in the 78-21 roll call by which the Senate on Thursday passed an $8.6 billion disaster-relief bill. A “yes” vote was a vote for the bill. Idaho: Craig (R) Yes; Kempthorne (R) Yes. Washington: Gorton (R) Yes; Murray (D) Yes.
2. OVAL OFFICE VIGNETTE President Clinton signed the disaster-relief bill soon after it arrived at the White House. Then, as eight members of Congress stood at his Oval Office desk applauding, Clinton raised his fist in a victory salute.