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GOP Crams For Final Exam On Capitol Hill

HOUSE Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fellow GOP revolutionaries are now facing perhaps their toughest legislative tests since taking control of Congress eight months ago.

The amount of work they need to finish soon is daunting: With budget deadlines only two weeks away, Congress has yet to begin formal consideration of Medicare reform. Neither the 13 big annual spending bills nor the catch-all budget reconciliation has been wrapped up and shipped to the president's desk. Only two items from the GOP Contract With America have actually been signed into law.

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Furthermore, congressional Democrats have recently proved tough opponents, and House and Senate Republicans seem to be constantly at odds. Things have reached such a state that Mr. Gingrich himself has traded in his old take-no-prisoners attitude for new rhetoric: You can't change the course of history overnight.

"If we're only an aberration, then this is a crisis," said Gingrich at a Monitor breakfast last week. "But if we're the beginning of a long period of center-right power, then you take 80 percent this year, and you come back again in January. You come back in '97, you come back in '98, and every year, inexorably, you get a little more."

But focusing on the GOP's troubles may overlook the fact that the party is in a position to end up with a productive year, say some analysts. With a modicum of cooperation with the White House, the Republicans could see much of their agenda passed, including Medicare reform, welfare reform, tax cuts, and a commitment to balance the federal budget.

"There will be one certain outcome when it's all over: Government will cost a lot less than government a year ago," says Stephen Hess, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

One thing is sure about the GOP-controlled 104th Congress - they've worked hard, so it shouldn't be a surprise if they are tired. Statistics published this month in Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill, show that Congress has been in session for a record 2,000 hours since January - dwarfing last year's total by 600 hours.

Yet for all that effort, the number of measures passed this year (so far) has actually fallen to 393, the lowest total in at least 15 years.

Many House Republicans grumble that the lack of overall congressional productivity is not their fault. The House, after all, marched through the entire 12-point Contract With America in 100 days.

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Some House Republicans blame the Senate's slow rules, and presidential posturing by Senate majority leader Bob Dole, for holding back the legislative barrage. In an attempt to keep the GOP coalition together, Gingrich and Mr. Dole recently called a rare bicameral meeting in which Gingrich encouraged members to stick together.

The slowdown is such that Gingrich, in interviews, now puts the timetable for true revolution of government at six to eight years.

"You cannot realistically expect the Senate, ... which does not have the scale of change in personnel the House had, to be a carbon copy," Gingrich said at the Monitor breakfast.

Part of the reason for the stall in congressional momentum is surely the difficulty of the agenda. Easy items that all Republicans agreed on passed quickly. "Now there will be more turf wars," says GOP pollster Glenn Bolger. "People have pet programs they don't want cut. We'll see more classic legislative give and take."

With crunch time coming up, Gingrich is looking for help anywhere he can get it - including the Oval Office. Where Gingrich once dismissed President Clinton as irrelevant, he now boasts that he and Clinton have an "exceptional" working relationship.

Indeed, Gingrich seems determined to steer Mr. Clinton to the center, where he will be far more likely to vote favorably on congressional legislation - even though he admits that the president's cooperation could give him a better chance of being reelected.

As Gingrich notes, there is no real alternative coming from congressional Democrats, whose ranks continue to thin. With the retirement of Reps. Norman Mineta of California and Pete Peterson from Florida, the Democrats will have fewer than 200 representatives in the House for the first time since 1948. If Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn retires, Gingrich adds, the Democrats will tie a 53-year-old retirement record.

When asked about charges that the Republican leadership is sliding toward the center, Gingrich shows a trace of the rhetorical fire that marked the earliest days of the 104th Congress. "I don't think we're moving toward compromise," he says. "Willingness to negotiate is not willingness to surrender."

While the changing tone of GOP leaders might sound like double-speak to some dyed-in-the-wool Republicans, old Washington hands say it's just smart politics - Congress was elected, after all, to get something done.

"Some people say [the GOP leaders] caved in," says Mr. Hess of Brookings. "Some people say they're still fire-eaters."

Meanwhile, Gingrich himself may be distracted in coming weeks by a House Ethics Committee investigation of his recent book deal with Random House and other extra-curricular activities.

The ethics panel has begun interviewing candidates for an independent counsel to lead such a probe. Democrats have been demanding a Gingrich investigation for months, claiming among other things that a college course taught by the Speaker was improperly financed with tax-deductible contributions.

Democrats "are desperately and bitterly determined to find something," responded Gingrich in a broadcast interview on Sept. 20.

"I'm confident when [the ethics panel] reviews it, they'll find we did everything legally."

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