GOP Scales Back Agenda

September 6, 1996

GOP Scales Back Agenda

Senate Majority Leader Lott says it is because he is a "realist." House Majority Whip DeLay says it is because Republicans have accomplished everything they want to. But top Republicans on Capitol Hill this week dropped just about everything except FY97 appropriations bills from this month's agenda largely because they are worried about losing seats -- and want to get their members home to campaign as much as possible.

Few Republicans will voice the fear of losing the majority -- most, in fact, say they believe they will pick up seats. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Bill Paxon of New York, for instance, maintains the GOP will gain 20 House seats. "There's no question about it," he said. But behind such public confidence, many Republicans say they are nervous -- and the actions of the leadership back that up.

"That is the strategy; to get out of here and get re-elected," said freshman Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill. Since returning from recess, GOP leaders have pruned their agenda back to just the spending bills. Priorities like a tax cut, affirmative action revision, school prayer legislation, and FDA reform have been dropped with little discussion. The target adjournment date has been moved up a week, and, in the interim, House members are being given as much time as possible to campaign in their districts; the House this week left town late Thursday, and no votes are scheduled until this coming Wednesday.

LaHood and several other Republicans acknowledged campaigning during the August recess was effective, and that members want more time to do it. "Being back in their districts in August really helped, particularly for those in marginal seats," LaHood said.

Top Republicans also say that the stripped-down schedule is part of a long-term strategy to pick their own fights and deny President Clinton and Democrats the chance to define the agenda. After their public relations disaster last winter from shutting down the federal government, Republicans believe they have improved their standing in the polls by avoiding fights with Clinton, one key House Republican said. Setting an ambitious agenda would just play into the hands of Democrats who would only make "mischief," this source added.

And the Democrats appear to be doing just what Republicans fear -- using their last few weeks in Washington to blast Republicans and their presidential standard-bearer, former Senate Majority Leader Dole. Since returning from the August recess, the Democrats already have held a "hearing" on the budget consequences of Dole's tax cut plan, and the Republican agenda is slammed nearly every day by top Democrats. Republicans, meanwhile, seem to be trying to get out of town with as little conflict as possible. "We may be novices, but we weren't born yesterday," the key Republican said. "The president would love for Congress to be the major issue in the campaign."

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