Divisions among term limits supporters and continued opposition to the idea are already threatening the chance a term limits constitutional amendment will succeed this Congress.
After none of the versions of the amendment came close to passing in 1995, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., promised advocates an early vote this year. But today's hearing in the House Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee highlighted the problems not only for term limits but for GOP hopes of passing legislation with their narrow majority. As opponents of term limits criticized all the proposals, advocates today fought among themselves over tactics, the best length for limits and whether they should be retroactive.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, even threatened to vote against any rule that does not include his plan -- which would make three- term House and two-term Senate limits retroactive. Underlining a problem GOP leaders seem certain to face again and again, Barton warned Republicans they only have 10 votes to spare.
"I think we'll beat the rule if we don't allow our bill to be voted on," he said after the hearing. Barton argued his proposal -- which is co-sponsored by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. -- is the only "real McCoy" plan because it is more immediate than the others. But Rep. Tillie Fowler, R-Fla., who backs an eight-year limit, said "the rhetoric about their bill ... is incorrect," because it would take time for states to ratify it.
After Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., conceded there is nothing new to say in the debate, Rep. Bill McCollum, R- Fla. -- who backs a 12-year limit for both the House and Senate -- said groups pushing for action through state ballot initiatives "are heading us toward gridlock."
McCollum warned that the ballot initiative movement is "irresponsible" and threatens to hurt chances for passage in Congress. "If that movement progresses and has its day, I think you will see support decline," he said. McCollum's plan garnered 227 votes in 1995, but he warned it may not get as much support this year because members will fear the effects of the ballot initiatives.
U.S. Term Limits -- which wants the same limits as Barton -- successfully won passage last year of ballot initiatives in nine states. Unless overturned by the Supreme Court, members of Congress in those states who serve beyond the limits or refuse to endorse them will have that printed next to their name on the ballot for succeeding elections.
Meanwhile, term limits opponents on both sides of the aisle continued to needle advocates. House Judiciary Chairman Hyde called the idea "a set of handcuffs looking for a prison," and Judiciary ranking member John Conyers, D-Mich., questioned what "social and economic problems will be improved by anybody's term limits." The exact schedule for votes on term limits is being discussed at this week's GOP leadership retreat, but floor action is expected in the first two weeks of February.