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Agenda Now Set By GOP House, Not White House

HOW fast, how far the balance of energy and attention has shifted in Washington. The Republicans - especially House Republicans led by man-of-the-hour Newt Gingrich of Georgia - now set the agenda in the nation's capital.

Consider just two vignettes:

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Young Rep. Jim Nussle (R) of Iowa, unrecognizable by tourists in the tiled corridors of the Capitol, packs a press room just to introduce a handful of newly elected colleagues and dole out minor details of the GOP transition team he heads. President Clinton, meanwhile, meeting with other heads of state halfway around the world, makes news largely by responding to eager Republicans here in Washington.

Now the ready list of priorities and promises to keep, and vows of a new way of doing business, belong to the new leaders on Capitol Hill. It is no longer the province of the young tribunes of change in the White House.

The degree to which Mr. Gingrich and company have jostled the political initiative out of the president's hands and down to the opposition Congress is unmatched, at least since World War II.

``I don't know of any parallel in history to that,'' says Charles O. Jones, a Brookings Institution scholar.

This obviously puts the Clinton administration in a far weaker position for putting its mark on policy, but that is not necessarily a bad position for the White House politically.

Consider, as Professor Jones notes, that the three postwar presidents who were elected twice - Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan -

each coped with substantial initiative coming from the opposition party in Congress. Each chose to work cooperatively with Congress on common issues and was reelected in a landslide.

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The White House has already begun seeking to identify the centrist common ground with Hill Republicans, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, welfare reform, the line-item veto, campaign reform, and reducing the deficit.

Clinton even said from Jakarta that he would consider supporting a constitutional amendment allowing voluntary school prayer. Both Mr. Gingrich and Senate Republican leader Robert Dole said last weekend they would push for the amendment early next year.

Congress-led governments can be productive, if history is any guide, and presidents can thrive. But an opposition Congress can be a dangerous as well.

Harry Truman battled Congress fiercely in his first, unelected term and was reelected, though by the skinniest of margins. Gerald Ford and George Bush battled Congress with veto power but were bounced by the voters.

But history offers only glancing comparisons to Clinton's position now.

The surprising force of the Republican sweep last week gives them the muscle to take the lead. But that has happened in midterm elections before.

What has not occurred before is Gingrich's strategic groundwork to convert hundreds of separate election victories into a mandate for a specific program of action - his 10-point Contract with America. Both Republican leaders and many of the newly elected GOP House members express an enthusiastic commitment to following through on the contract.

In the Senate, Mr. Dole has not asserted himself nearly as vigorously as Gingrich has in the House. A major reason is that the Senate is harder to deliver. Individual senators can block votes and extend debate, and neither party has enough votes outright to shut off filibusters.

The first major legislative vote, according to Gingrich, may be scheduled about two weeks into the session opening in January on a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

Balanced-budget amendments have come close to passage in recent years, even with a Democratic Congress. The Clinton administration opposes such an amendment. White House budget director Alice Rivlin argues that it could lead to sleight-of-hand moves such as using regulation to shift costs onto the private sector and could also force tax increases during recessions, when they would hurt the most. ``We believe the way to balance the budget is to balance the budget,'' she says.

On this and many other fronts, as things are forming up now, a president who has so far set the legislative agenda will be reacting to a Gingrich-driven agenda.

A very strong current in that agenda is a drive to cut taxes. Just as George Bush was wary that any program he proposed would be expanded in Congress with more spending, Clinton and his staff are concerned that Republicans will use supply-side economics to underestimate the cost of popular tax cuts - driving up the deficit, inflation, and interest rates.

Michael Forbes, a new Republican congressman-elect from New York, says of the next few months in the House: ``There really isn't anything like this in modern memory.''

The important thing is not the details of the Republican contract planks, he says, it is simply that all these issues will be brought to the House floor for open debate.

``We're going to see an entirely different Congress ... an entirely different attitude,'' says Frank Riggs, a GOP congressman-elect from California who served here before.

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