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Firebrand GOP Class Of '94 Warms To Life On The Inside

By Carroll J. Doherty and Jeffrey L. Katz, CQ Staff Writers

Every Tuesday evening that the House is in session, Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., meets with a handful of other lawmakers to pray and talk about the spiritual and moral challenges they face as husbands, fathers and congressmen.

"This is a world filled with power, money and sex. All the evil spirits lurk in Washington, D.C.," Wamp said in an interview, speaking in terms befitting his status as a member of the rebellious GOP class first elected in 1994. "We try as a group to make sure we do not become a part of Washington."

But this is also a place that rewards those with the patience and knowledge to take advantage of it. And now that Wamp is ensconced on the Appropriations Committee and wiser in Washington's ways, he no longer talks about returning to Southeastern Tennessee after one or two terms.

"This is not a bad way of life," he said.

Wamp's contradictory views are emblematic of the GOP class of 1994 -- one of the largest and most aggressive groups of newcomers in congressional history. Those 73 members arrived here as fire-breathing revolutionaries determined to shake Congress to its core. But, like Wamp, most of the 57 who remain have become more pragmatic. They are settling into committee assignments, supporting incremental policy changes and trying to direct federal largess back home.

In short, many of them are acting like traditional lawmakers, albeit with very conservative voting records.

"Time and experience make incrementalists of us all," said John J. Pitney Jr., an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California. "They changed the institution, but the institution changed them."

Reputations die hard, though, and this is a class that will always be popularly thought of as zealots for the Republican jihad. The group was willing to shut down the federal government two years ago to try to get its way. A nucleus still defies the party leadership on key votes and provided the impetus for an abortive coup against House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., whom the freshmen once regarded as a political deity.

That faction -- which includes Oklahomans Steve Largent and Tom Coburn, Mark Souder of Indiana, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, among others -- still defines the class's public image as a band of anti-government radicals.

While that core group of rebels constitutes only about a dozen of the class, its members "make good copy" because of their eagerness to buck GOP leaders on high-profile issues, said Dan Meyer, Gingrich's former chief of staff.

The rebels still employ the same take-no-prisoners tactics that Gingrich perfected when the GOP was in the minority. Souder noted that the Class of '94 initially campaigned for Congress expecting to be in the minority, not part of a governing coalition. "We came in looking for a fight," he said.

But while the dissidents retain their pugnaciousness, the majority of the class now tempers its conservatism with a desire to fashion laws through compromises and gain more legislative influence. "I didn't come to Washington to burn all the buildings down," said Roger Wicker of Mississippi, a former state senator who served as class president in 1995.

Wicker believes that the class was inaccurately portrayed early on as an indistinguishable group of political automatons. "We were all unfairly painted with the same brush," Wicker said. "Most of us in our own ways are much more pragmatic and results-oriented."

From Unity to Diversity

The perception that members of the GOP Class of '94 were a unified group of revolutionaries was formed during their first year in the House, when they lined up with remarkably little dissent to push their "Contract With America." That unity began to dissipate after their first 100 days in office, and the breakdown became more apparent after they forced two partial government shutdowns in the fall and winter of 1995-96.

The 10-i tem contract was artfully designed to produce a national congressional campaign. It relied on broadly popular economic and institutional changes, such as balancing the budget, cutting taxes, overhauling welfare and limiting congressional terms.

The contract not only organized the class for a mission that helped Republicans control the House for the first time in 40 years, it gave its members a strong sense of accomplishment. Moreover, it sent a signal that the group was prepared to be the House's legislative engine.

Indeed, the class held its identity longer than the 75 post-Watergate Democrats first elected in 1974. Most of those Democrats had melded into the institution within six months, said Burdett A. Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, who wrote about the '74 Class in "The New American Politician."

But the Contract With America also set up expectations that the Class of '94 could not match.

"We tended to be a little naive politically and legislatively," Largent said, recalling that measures were often either killed by the Senate or languished there and that President Clinton vetoed others. While much of the contract was approved in some form or fashion, "By the end of year two, it was clear that not even all our colleagues in the House were excited about maintaining the momentum," he said.

Once the euphoria and exhaustion of those first few months had ebbed, important differences among the class members began to emerge. There were divergent viewpoints on social issues that the contract had skirted, such as how to handle abortion. There were even more significant differences in the tactics and temperaments of the members.

The shutdown, generally seen as a public relations disaster for Republicans and a boon for Clinton, was a turning point for many. Said a former aide to a member of the Republican Class of '94: "It seriously divided moderates and old-timers who had previously tolerated the freshman members. And the freshmen grew increasingly disdainful of committee chairmen. The gulf between them had widened."

Hard-core rebels believe the shutdown strategy failed because Republicans lacked resolve. "We had a lot of people cave in, including [former Senate Majority Leader] Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich eventually," Largent said.

Many in this core group defied Gingrich and other party leaders by opposing the reopening the government in January 1996. Some have crossed the leadership in key instances since, including votes in June 1996 on a budget resolution, March 1997 on whether to bring to the House floor a leadership bill authorizing spending by all standing committees, and July 1997 on the spending portion of the budget-balancing reconciliation bill.

Also, many in this group regularly attended meetings during the summer of 1997 that led to the abortive coup against Gingrich.

The rebels prevailed in a few efforts -- such as when they lined up with Democrats to defeat the committee funding initiative -- yet most of their attempts fell short. Even so, they have a knack for attracting media attention and their ranks include the most easily identifiable class members.

But most of their classmates -- as well as the GOP conference overall -- lost some of their taste for confrontation after the shutdown, and again after Clinton's re-election was seen as a mandate for bipartisanship.

"They've been satisfied to seek their conservative goals in a slower, more careful manner," said former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn. (1971-1991), a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. "I don't think they've lost their principles or their goals, but I think they understand they can't achieve them overnight."

Team Players

While virtually all the class members can be described as conservatives, there are crucial differences in outlook and temperament that separate the incrementalists from the rebels.

"The vast majority have grown into a cohesive part of the Republican Conference," said former Rep. Robert S. Walker, R-Pa. (1977-1997), a Gingrich ally who retired at the end of the last Congress in January 1997 and is now president of The Wexler Group, a government affairs firm. "They maintain their philosophical commitment to change Washington. But they understand what's necessary to maintain the majority and have made compromises."

Some of these emerging traditionalists previously served in state legislatures or other government positions that conditioned them to the give-and-take of lawmaking. This inclination toward compromise has been enhanced as they have come to see themselves as part of Congress at large, not just of their own class.

At first, all of the class members initially identified themselves foremost as members of the Class of '94, said Michael Franc, the Heritage Foundation's vice president of government relations and a former aide to House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

"Little by little, other bonds are starting to replace the Class of '94 -- the bond of being on an important committee or leadership team or leadership task force," Franc said.

Serving on a major committee can provide members with a sophisticated view of the diversity of constituents and interests represented by the House. "You have to be unbelievably ideological not to be able to see that multiple claims might have some legitimacy," Loomis said.

Consider the outlook of Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., who represents a politically competitive district in and around Erie.

"Having a ringside seat on Ways and Means and to the process of developing a lot of the legislation that really matters to me, like tax reform," English said, "I'm certainly less inclined to throw bombs than someone who is strictly on the sidelines of the process."

Differences among their districts also drive members in different directions. English, for instance, was an early supporter of increasing the minimum wage -- an abhorrent position to conservatives but popular in his blue-collar district.

Many have also fallen into the classic Washington mode of trying to direct more federal dollars to their districts. George P. Radanovich, R-Calif., class president in 1996 and a reliable conservative, said he helped get $200 million in disaster relief to clean up after flooding at Yosemite National Park and is now seeking money for a statewide water project. "We have a constituency to take care of and some legitimate needs in the district," he said.

They have also found that they can make a log-rolling system some once viewed with disdain work for them. Wicker last year was able to insert a provision in the fiscal 1998 Labor-HHS spending bill that makes it more difficult for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to enforce a rule that he thought would harm his Mississippi district's furniture industry. "If I had not been willing to work within the system with the Republican and Democratic leaders on that committee," Wicker said, "I most certainly would have failed."

Above all, most of the incrementalists exhibit a traditional lawmaker's desire to gain influence, get re-elected and stay in good stead with the voters.

That sort of business-as-usual approach repels Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and the class's other conservative purists. Sanford said he and other rebels joke about what they say is Wamp's zeal for maximizing funding for the Tennessee Valley Authority and other federal projects in his district. "We tell him, by the time you get done there [on the Appropriations Committee] there won't be any money left."

The Outsiders

The rebel faction takes no joy in compromises that yield partial victories. These lawmakers proudly claim that, unlike many of their classmates, they still burn with the populist spirit that originally infused the Class of '94.

They launched their political careers as anti-Washington outsiders and refuse to modify their approach. "We were political neophytes," said Sanford, who ran a real estate business and had never served in public office.

Significantly, most are staunch advocates of congressional term limits. Sanford, Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., and other class members who backed the coup against Gingrich have promised to limit themselves to three terms, which means that they are already preparing for their final re-election campaigns.

Others from the Class of '94, such as Graham and Wamp, have pledged to serve no more than six terms.

"That more than anything defines a way of thinking about the job and helps explain the tenor of the class versus other members," said David M. McIntosh, R-Ind., who took a six-term pledge.

Added Walker: "Those who have limited themselves to three terms tend to be much more impatient. When Newt and other leaders outline long-term strategy on an issue, they don't see that as OK."

It also means that the traditional cudgels House leaders have at their disposal to enforce party discipline -- threatening to boot a member off a key committee, for instance -- tend not to be effective with the rebels. Most do not serve on major committees, and those who do will probably depart long before they can climb the seniority ladder.

Consequently, the rebels have defied their leaders with impunity. For example, of the 15 lawmakers who met regularly to plot Gingrich's ouster, 12 were members of the Class of '94. A generation ago, involvement in such a scheme might have been a career-ending move. But the Speaker never punished the 12 -- in part because he lacked the means to do so.

Nearly six months after the abortive coup, many of the rebels still resent Gingrich and his leadership team. Sanford, who was deeply dismayed by the ethics charges against Gingrich, said that the only vote he regrets casting was one in January 1997 to return Gingrich to the Speaker's chair.

Souder acknowledged that while Republican leaders have tailored their tactics to preserve the GOP majority, the rebels cling to a minority mindset. But he suggested that Gingrich's tactical evolution included reneging on promises, such as when he proposed to increase funding for House committees despite an earlier pledge not to do so.

"Some of this isn't a matter of growing," Souder said. "It's a matter of deceit."

Yet for all their incendiary rhetoric, the rebels have compiled more newspaper clippings than legislative successes. Some candidly admit that they would not recommend their tactics to everyone.

"If everybody were as outspoken as we were, we'd probably never get anything done," said Salmon. "We'd always be at loggerheads."

Bad Blood

The appropriations battles in the fall of 1997 illustrated the growing chasm between the rebels and the rest of the GOP Conference. Largent, Coburn and their allies were trying to attach contentious policy riders to spending bills, while their colleagues were more interested in making compromises and moving on.

The most bitter struggle arose from the rebels' efforts to prevent Clinton from instituting voluntary national student tests, on the grounds that the tests could prompt more federal control over education. The group joined with Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, in a frantic effort to block the program through a provision in the fiscal 1998 Labor-HHS appropriations bill. (PL 105-78)

Opponents of the testing plan ultimately won a limited victory: No trial runs can go forward this year, though an independent board can continue to develop the tests.

But the entire episode exposed bitterness within the Republican ranks. Throughout the negotiations, Coburn and other hard-liners harshly accused Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert L. Livingston, R-La., of selling out conservative principles in order to cut a deal with the Democrats.

When Livingston's panel agreed on a tentative compromise to resolve the dispute, the rebels forced their own leaders to abandon it and negotiate another.

The rebels were outraged that Livingston had permitted ranking Democrat David R. Obey of Wisconsin to play a significant role in forging the aborted deal. Graham later referred to it as "the Obey deal," and at a closed-door caucus meeting at the time, Coburn was observed scrawling the word "Obey" on top of some of Livingston's news releases outlining the compromise. Speaking through an aide, Coburn first characterized the incident as "old news" and then denied marking up the news releases. Months later, there is still bad blood over the affair.

Livingston declined to comment for this story. But a senior aide to the committee suggested that the rebels are unrealistic in using spending bills to advance pet ideological causes -- particularly when the White House and in some cases the Republicans in the Senate oppose them.

Distinct Character

Each sizable group of newcomers starts out with its own unique character. That was true for the Democrat "Watergate Babies" of 1974, as well as the "Reagan robots" of 1980, who played a key role in reshaping the nation's fiscal policy.

And every class is shaped by the major issues of its first campaign, according to Meyer, Gingrich's former chief of staff. The Class of '94 ran so hard against Washington, Meyer said, "It became part of their being."

But times change, and revolutions lose steam. The smaller GOP freshman class of '96 -- only 32 members -- espoused familiar conservative rhetoric at their orientation. "But the class talked about the need to work with Democrats," Meyer said. "The theme of '96 was, 'Can't you guys get along?' "

After their roller-coaster ride over the past three years, that theme also has considerable appeal for many of the survivors from the Class of '94. Most are mellower, perhaps a bit humbler, and certainly less combative and judgmental than they were on that January day in 1995 when they promised to take Washington by storm.

"As a class our attitude has changed about Congress," Wamp said. "The general membership of the class believes that members of Congress are decent and good and without ulterior motives. They went in thinking that Congress was a bunch of greedy, egotistical members who were out of touch."

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday Jan. 24, 1998

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Rebels of '94 and 'Watergate Babies' Similar In Class Size, Sense of Zeal
For Democratic Freshmen, a Tough Start
Firebrand GOP Class Of '94 Warms To Life On The Inside
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Politically Charged Task Faces Gambling Panel
Rostenkowski Hopes To Set Forth On the Road to Redemption
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