The disaster-relief bill of 1997 has turned out to be a disaster without relief for Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Misstep by misstep, they took a small bill, used it as a vehicle for larger political objectives, and turned it into a huge fiasco. They absorbed an almost daily drumbeat of embarrassments that ended only when they reversed themselves Thursday evening and handed President Clinton the bill he’d wanted all along.
“We tried to wage war with the White House, and we were standing on quicksand,” said a House Republican leader in summing up the weekslong ordeal. “There was a sense of unrealism” to the whole fight, noted Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind. “It was a learning experience,” added Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
By Friday, Republicans were suffering the consequences, including heightened tensions within the House GOP leadership, more criticism for Lott from conservative activists, House-Senate antagonisms and gnawing new questions about Republicans’ ability to run the Congress they won in 1994.
The situation is especially critical in the House, where the dispute has exacerbated frictions between Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and other House leaders and undermined lawmakers’ confidence in their leaders. Some are privately talking again about trying to force a vote of no confidence in Gingrich.
Faced with relentless Democratic attacks, poignant pleas from Upper Midwest flood victims and debilitating divisions in their own ranks, Republican leaders seemed to be the last people in Washington to realize they had failed in their fight to add two unrelated initiatives to the aid bill.
One would have prevented a government shutdown in case of an impasse over spending; the other would have blocked use of census sampling techniques that Republicans fear could cost them House seats.
With no clear strategy of their own, the Republicans were thwarted by a presidential veto and the hang-tough tactics of congressional Democrats who had been working with the White House since late May on a strategy to assure that the GOP took the blame.
Trying to put the best face on matters, Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, R-Texas, said in a closed-door meeting of House Republicans, “My daddy told me that if you run over a skunk, don’t stop to inquire about its health - just keep on going down the road.”
But the scent of defeat may linger as party members sort through the wreckage that many seemed to think was avoidable. Members were befuddled as to why the leadership had failed to heed lessons from earlier failed efforts to overpower or embarrass Clinton.
At the White House, there was a mix of glee at Clinton’s victory, and bewilderment over the GOP tactics. “Every once in a while the Hezbollah wing of their party gets ahold of the steering wheel and drives right off the cliff,” said one official.