THE idea of limiting the terms of US legislators may be popular with voters -- but so far, it still seems unlikely to pass the House of Representatives.
With a series of votes on proposed term-limit constitutional amendments beginning in the House this week, even proponents worry that they don't have enough support for the measure to pass. Already, some term-limits advocates are looking beyond the House to the Supreme Court, which will decide this spring whether states have the right to impose term limits on federal officials.
The high court decision may be far more significant than this week's House vote. Some 350 lawmakers say they support term limits.
But with four different amendments to choose from, inaction may be the actual result.
''Members [of Congress] don't want to enact term limits, but want to look good doing nothing.'' They can all vote for one of the bills knowing none will pass, says Paul Jacob, head of US Term Limits, an advocacy group in Washington.
''Paul has missed the boat,'' says Rep. Bob Inglis (R) of South Carolina, sponsor of the toughest term-limits bill. ''This will be a very clear vote on term limits,'' and members will be held accountable.
In the past few months, the House has voted to give states greater authority over social programs and the president more power over the national purse. Republicans have sought greater freedom from cumbersome regulations for property owners and manufacturers.
But a vote on term limits this week will be the toughest test yet of Republican populism, because it requires members to give up their own power, and it may bring the stiffest consequences from angry constituents.
The airwaves have been jammed in recent weeks with special-interest groups, ranging from the US Chamber of Commerce to the Christian Coalition, urging support of term limits. A national network of advocacy groups, including the Ross Perot movement, is preparing a backlash against members who vote no.
''This is a vote of self-interest, the equivalent of a pay raise,'' Mr. Inglis says. ''And members are feeling the heat from back home.''
Despite its being the first-ever congressional vote on term limits, this week's action is expected to be anticlimactic. Four constitutional amendments come to the floor today, with a vote expected Wednesday. Constitutional amendments require 290 votes for passage in the House; vote counters estimate Republicans are about 60 short.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is reviewing the limit on congressional terms enacted into law by the state legislature of Arkansas, with a decision expected by July 1.
If the court upholds states' rights in the Arkansas case, an unprecedented 149 House seats would turn over in 1998 and 2000. Term limits would lack uniformity nationwide, giving those states with longer term limits or no limits the advantage in Congress; 22 states have term limits. ''There will be tensions among the states,'' predicts Norman Ornstein, a student of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. ''Smaller states may try to gain leverage by setting longer limits.''
But a court decision in favor of the states would spark an immediate panic in the halls of Congress, Inglis says. ''The entire California delegation would march into [Speaker] Newt Gingrich's office insisting on another vote,'' he says. Under California's term-limits law, all 54 representatives would lose their seats in 1998.
The amendments coming to the floor today call for three terms in the House and two in the Senate; six terms in the House and two in the Senate; a version of the second that would allow state-imposed limits to override the federal limits; and a Democratic initiative that would impose term limits retroactively.
All four amendments will be brought to the floor today for debate. The measure with the most support will be put up for final passage, probably on Wednesday. Republicans expect 80 percent of their ranks to vote for the final bill and stand ready to fix blame on the Democrats it fails.
''This is an issue whose time has come,'' says Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida, sponsor of the six-term bill in the House. ''When you talk about something this fundamental, you're talking about revisiting issues the Founding Fathers debated.''