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Party unity in Congress: it's harder to hold troops in line

Newt Gingrich, his enormous shock of prematurely gray hair almost overpowering his boyish face, huddles with a group of his Republican colleagues outside the House of Representatives chamber.

He is trying to resolve a tiff he has caused within his group of Young Turk conservatives. But, taking a seat on a nearby bench later, Representative Gingrich shrugs off such spats as inevitable.

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''When you're trying to build a national movement, your problems are constant ,'' he says. The former history professor from Georgia opines that the Founding Fathers must have had their fights, too.

If the comparison with the American Revolution seems extravagant, it is in keeping with Dr. Gingrich's idea of his mission in the US House of Representatives.

His declared aim is nothing short of setting off a ''tidal wave'' in the country for his New Right brand of Republicanism, which he labels as high-tech, future-oriented, populist, and conservative. His philosophy is also antitax and antiwelfare-state, with a touch of a cold-war approach to communism.

He fights his battles not in the House committees or during House debates on legislation, but in the news media. He and a group of like-minded young Republicans, of whom he is the unofficial leader, reserve time on the House floor, after the regular debates of the day, to advance their theories before the House television cameras to the nation's cable-TV audience.

Whether or not the group touches off a tidal wave in the countryside, Gingrich has already churned up the waters on Capitol Hill, challenging the very nature of the US party system in Congress.

By long tradition the lines between congressional Republicans and Democrats are sometimes distinct but often blurred in Congress. One longtime aide in the Senate calls political parties chiefly ''a vehicle for selecting candidates.''

Gingrich seeks a clean-cut ideological line of demarcation. He has been pushing for a system like the European parties, which are tied to political ideologies, since he arrived in Washington in 1979.

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He finally made his public breakthrough last month when his assault on Democrats for being soft on communism incited the liberal House Speaker, Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts, to lose his temper. The Speaker angrily denounced him on the House floor and was ruled out of order. Gingrich, approvingly noting that the incident made all three TV network news shows, now calls that incident ''helpful'' for his cause.

He makes no apologies for being an ideologue.

''A period of tremendous change'' calls for ''the driving force of an ideological vision,'' according to Gingrich. ''In that sense we're ideologues,'' he says, dismissing the O'Neill Democrats as standing for a ''dying world'' of smokestacks and welfare-state liberalism.

In the House, where conciliation is the rule and leaders of the two parties traditionally share in golf and card games after work hours, Gingrich and his Republican co-activists Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania, Vin Weber of Minnesota , and Connie Mack of Florida among others, seek confrontation.

Democratic House leaders ''want the right to dictate the debate,'' says Gingrich. ''You don't compromise with a dictator.''

That view has troubled a number of more pragmatic Republicans, including minority leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois, who sees his party outnumbered 2 to 1 and must scramble to put some Republican imprint on legislation in the House.

But even some Republicans who are uncomfortable with the combative style partly blame Tip O'Neill. As the highest ranking Democratic officeholder during the Reagan years, O'Neill has become the chief adversary of the Republican President. Leaning back in his chair in his ornate ceremonial office in the Capitol, he fires a steady stream of stinging criticisms at Reagan policies during his daily press conferences.

Moreover, O'Neill is by nature one of the most sharply partisan speakers in modern history. With a gain of 26 seats in 1982, he and the Democrats have tightened their grip on the House, increasing their numbers on committees and angering even moderate Republicans.

The diverse and undisciplined Democrats, meanwhile, are beginning to vote together with increased regularity. Last year, according the Congressional Quarterly, they were more unified than at any time at least since the 1950s.

Part of the reason is ''because more like-minded Democrats are getting elected,'' says Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and close observer of Congress.

''We are seeing somewhat more ideological movement,'' he says. ''The parties are sorting themselves out a little more (along philosophical lines).'' Dr. Ornstein predicts that the Gingrich campaign will reap a sharp reaction from Democrats when they make the rules for the next Congress.

One area of contention will almost certainly be use of the House TV cameras. Already some younger Democrats, including the chief deputy whip, Rep. Bill Alexander of Arkansas, are nudging the leadership toward finding ways to make television work for Democrats, too.

For now, the partisan feelings are so highly charged in the House that Rep. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine, holds that the only answer is to adjourn. ''I don't expect the atmosphere or the legislation to improve (before the elections),'' she says.

For his part, Gingrich has assumed a lower profile since the O'Neill outburst , working on the final draft of his book to be titled ''Window of Opportunity.''

But Gingrich makes clear that the quiet is temporary. ''I think confrontation is inevitable,'' he says.

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