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Newt In The Crosshairs

G.O.P. snipers have taken aim at the speaker, but no one has figured out how to govern with a big agenda and a tiny majority

By Nancy Gibbs

TIME Magazine

(TIME, April 7) -- Whenever Florida Republican Joe Scarborough encountered House Speaker Newt Gingrich this winter, he found himself thinking of Richard Nixon as rendered by Oliver Stone. In one scene a vehement Pat Nixon goes over to Dick and grabs him by the lapels. "Dick, you want them to love you, but they never will," she says. The conservative sophomore had wanted to tell this story to Newt for months, to convince him that efforts to make friends with moderates and liberals both in Congress and outside were wrongheaded and ill-fated. Finally Scarborough couldn't help himself: every act of Congress seemed a betrayal of the cause. There was a tax hike, a vote to fund international family planning and now talk of postponing tax cuts and increasing congressional spending. So in a private meeting last month with the Speaker and nine other members, Scarborough decided his time had come. He walked over to the other side of the table where Gingrich sat. He explained the Nixon scene, and as a surprised Gingrich stared up at him, he reached for the Speaker's lapels. "Newt, you want them to love you, but they never will," he said.

In all quarters of the Capitol the question is not if Gingrich will fall but when. "This is the night of long knives," says a Republican House member. In the pages of the Weekly Standard, the G.O.P. tip sheet, Representative Pete King, a fed-up New York Republican, calls Gingrich "the most powerful liberal in American politics." He doesn't mean that as a compliment. Once loyal House members have spent the winter complaining that the leadership has no strategy, little vision and few principles anymore. Senior members, including some of Gingrich's princes, like Dick Armey and Bill Paxon, have been spotted eyeing the throne and measuring the crown.

But any potential rival would face the same predicament Gingrich finds himself in: the G.O.P. majority is whisker-thin, the President is far more popular than House Republicans, and the public has expressed a greater appetite for action than ideology. While a President can look useful just by holding summits and improving child car-seat safety, Gingrich's troops have much more to lose if nothing much gets passed this year; in just 19 months they have to face voters again.

Which explains the Speaker's conspicuous conversion from flamethrower to peacemaker, part of a five-month plan that his closest and most controversial adviser, Joe Gaylord, prepared for him in January. Since then Gingrich has courted moderates, Democrats and even the White House. At the State of the Union Address, he made nice to Jesse Jackson. Last month he met with actor Alec Baldwin and seemed to support continued funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, despite the fact that House Republicans resolved in 1995 that the NEA would be put to sleep after this year. And two weeks ago came his apostate announcement that tax cuts could wait until the budget was balanced. Says a confidant: "Newt is starting to learn that you need to define victory in ways that you can achieve it."

But that approach, however prudent, is splitting the party in two. On one side are the veteran Republicans who, for all their euphoria at sweeping into power in 1994, understood that there was only so much mileage to be gained from roughshod reform; eventually life would return to its rhythms and routines, things would slow down, chairmen would take more power. But they hadn't counted on the reactions of the newest recruits, whose political lives began with Gingrich's call to arms. Mark Neumann stopped building houses in Wisconsin, Steve Largent quit his business in Oklahoma, Scarborough stopped trying cases in Florida, and they all ran for Congress. With no institutional memory, they showed up on the Capitol steps, promising purification. They don't know how to go back to the old way, because for them there never was such a thing.

Residual loyalty and gratitude for his leadership were enough to help Gingrich survive his ethics troubles and win another term as Speaker, though by a bare three votes. Some members thought that reaffirmation would bring back the old big-think, follow-me-to-Armageddon Newt; instead they got a warm and fuzzy Tickle Me Newtie. He seemed to go out of his way to lower his profile and not give offense. For weeks the public explanation for Gingrich's disappearance was that he was strategizing about the budget; yet when asked about his plans at the January G.O.P. retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, Gingrich offered vague options instead of a course of action.

The next few weeks brought legislative havoc. The vote for a balanced-budget amendment failed. The first revenue vote was a tax hike in airline tickets. Funding for international family planning, seen as a pro-abortion vote, passed. And all the while, Gingrich and his lieutenants Tom DeLay and John Boehner had quietly begun floating the idea of separating tax cuts from balancing the budget. The idea was to strip the Democrats of their demagoguery: to avoid the charge, so effective in the last election, that Republicans just wanted to gut Medicare in order to cut taxes for rich people. The problem was that Gingrich laid out the proposal to reporters before he had fully briefed his own party.

That was all too much for 11 novice lawmakers, who decided to make their stand by blowing up a fairly routine vote on funding congressional committees. The chairmen had crafted a bill that increased spending 14%. Many of the younger members were appalled. They had made it a matter of honor that when asking citizens to tighten their belts, accept welfare reform or cut entitlements like Social Security, Congress had to make some sacrifices as well. The rebellion forced Gingrich to hold a series of meetings in mid-March to try to yank the rebels back in line. "We were all told we were immature and we needed to behave like a majority, not like children," says one of the 11.

The fights laid bare the generational war. At a late-night caucus meeting two weeks ago, one of the 11 rebels, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, was rudely interrupted by two obviously drunk members. "You think you're so goddam sanctimonious!" they spat. As one of the others spoke, another irritated old-timer exclaimed,"I don't want to hear this s___!" Seven-term Congressman Joe Barton stripped away all pretense. "You guys are under the mistaken impression that this is a marriage contract, that it's until death do we part," he told them. "It was good for two years." Now there was an epitaph for a revolution.

By the meeting's end, the rebels felt they had got through to Gingrich, who was less confrontational. Just before Congress broke for Easter recess, he took the floor and declared a generic devotion to tax cuts, and the House passed a compromise bill to freeze most committee spending at current levels. But the embarrassment just turned up the volume on speculation that Gingrich would be gone by summer or by the end of the year. Already the handicapping for his successor has begun, with most oddsmakers saying the job is majority leader Dick Armey's to lose. Since last year Armey has been presiding over "unity dinners" in the Capitol, a clear effort to reach out to moderates. And DeLay made sure he was the first to float publicly the idea of postponing tax cuts.

The White House has its own concerns about life after Gingrich. When President Clinton met recently with the top budgeteers from Capitol Hill, he slipped House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich a wedding present--a letter in an engraved frame. With Gingrich weakened, the White House is desperately trying to forge other ties to Capitol Hill. Clinton made a particular effort to direct some of that famous high-beam charm at Kasich in the belief that if they are to have any hope of getting anything through Congress--particularly anything difficult--someone has got to make it happen.

But given his repertoire of near death experiences, it is never wise to count Gingrich out. While many conservatives are backing away, the moderates have rallied behind him. Among the many changes in House rules, one crucial, little-noticed one is that Gingrich--and not the conference--picks the head of the campaign committee. Gingrich effectively controls it, and therefore the money it funnels into congressional races. To betray Gingrich--and still have him prevail as Speaker--could be quite expensive for any lawmaker who is facing a tight race in 1998.

--Reported by James Carney, Tamala M. Edwards and Karen Tumulty/Washington

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