Defensive GOP cleans up its budget act


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Look no further, ye seekers of political truth, who wish to know why the Republicans surrendered 30 or so riders to the appropriations bill - riders that authorized their friends to chop down more trees, graze more cattle and build more roads and airports on public land throughout the West.

The answer is to be found in two phenomena: George Pataki's commercials; and who is mad at Newt Gingrich.

George Pataki, you say? The governor of New York, the westernmost corner of which is an hour or so east of Cleveland?

Calm ye-self down and check those commercials. There's the governor, in his outdoor duds, sitting on the shores of a lovely lake, talking to some kids about how he's just like that nature-lover Teddy Roosevelt, who set aside millions of beautiful acres for future enjoyment.

Now remember these two salient facts: Pataki was slated for re-election in a walk; Pataki is a Republican. From this, the more sophisticated may deduce that some Republicans, especially those who win elections in swing states and/or districts, have figured out that being on nature's side is good politics.

Now look at who's mad at Newt Gingrich in the wake of last month's budget agreement. It's the conservatives. Without mentioning the Speaker by name, his buddy, Jack Kemp, proclaimed the Republican leadership "without purpose beyond its seeming preoccupation with saving the congressional seats of its incumbents." Other conservatives, both politicians and chatterers, were angrier yet after party bigwigs caved in to President Clinton over the budget.

For most of these conservatives, Western land-use issues are not the principal cause of their ideological dyspepsia. As usual, this distress comes primarily from the taxes which were not cut and from the money which was or will be spent. Almost as a matter of faith, conservative Republicans think taxes should always be cut and public spending should never rise except for defense or in their own districts.

Alas for these Republicans, Gingrich recognized two obstacles which, while perhaps not insurmountable, were surmountable only at a price he was not willing to pay. The first obstacle was Bill Clinton, who snookered the speaker again, not as spectacularly as he did in 1995, but well enough.

As usual, Clinton had a little luck and a little help from his fiercest enemies, who (again) miscalculated the public reaction to revelations about the president's concupiscence. Armed with a high approval rating, just as real decisions had to be made, Clinton made the Republicans pay for not passing the budget bills when they were due.

Here the president had another advantage, which was Gingrich's other obstacle: Most voters agreed with Clinton on most of the matters in dispute. Thus the Republican quandary. If they fought Clinton tooth and nail, they would satisfy their staunchest supporters, but they would be giving the president issues. He could take these issues and run with them, thereby "nationalizing" the impending elections.

The very same Republicans, who (successfully) nationalized the 1994 elections over guns, gays and the personality of Bill Clinton, and who finally figured out they could not nationalize the 1998 elections over presidential peccadilloes, did not want to nationalize them over education or Social Security.

So, they said, you want 100,000 teachers, Mr. P? Here, have 30,000 of them for next year as a down payment. You want $5.9 billion for put-upon grain farmers? Sure thing. As for that $18 billion we said we'd never give you for the International Monetary Fund ... well, attach a few strings, and you've got it. And while we're at it, we don't want to fight you over roads through one wilderness area, helicopter landing pads in another, clear-cuts in Idaho and more dams in California. Come to think of it, we don't want to fight you over anything at all.

In other words, the Republican motto for the end of the 105th Congress was: We don't want no trouble. And certainly no trouble that entailed getting tagged as "anti-environmental." Whatever doubts there may have been about Republican sensitivity in this matter should have been laid to rest Oct. 7, when the House of Representatives defeated a hastily assembled, 400-page park bill to which some Western Republicans had added their pet giveaways to resource extractors and developers.

Republicans move greenward

The vote, 302 to 123, was not close, and simple arithmetic reveals that even if every Democrat voted against the bill (they didn't), at least 80 Republicans must have joined them. A few of those Republicans were actually motivated by the conviction that the measure did not tilt far enough in the direction of development. Most judged provisions such as James V. Hansen's proposal to protect 630,000 acres of Utah's San Rafael Swell, yet to eliminate wilderness protection for 125,629 acres of wilderness study area, to be outrages against the natural world and possible threats to their re-elections.

Led by Sherwood Boehlert of upstate New York, this faction of Republican environmentalists has grown steadily, not from newly elected members but from veteran representatives, mostly from the Northeast, Midwest and California, who have been listening to their constituents. A few years ago, Boehlert could count on only about a dozen Republican allies. Now, depending on the issue, at least 35 Republicans will join him.

As might be expected, this development has not pleased everyone. By reliable report, the normally affable Hansen became downright testy with Boehlert, and would not discuss a compromise over the parks bill.

Right out in public, House Resource Committee Chairman Don Young of Alaska warned Republican opponents of the bill not to come to him next year with any of their pet parks projects. His threat did not work, though some of his colleagues fear that he is the sort of fellow who holds a grudge.

Balance of power shifting?

The potency of the threat depends on Republicans holding their slim majority in the House, a likely outcome, though not so certain that political prognosticators will make fools of themselves. Those among ye who have been reading the big national papers of late may have noticed how many ways political reporters have found to say that they haven't the foggiest idea of what will happen on Election Day. As you read this, you know.

Why some feel that predictions are necessary always puzzles me because I find it a full-time job simply explaining what did happen. Foretelling the future requires different skills entirely. But, lest I be accused of wimpery, I'll play the game.

Republicans will take the Senate seat John Glenn is giving up in Ohio, will beat Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois, probably defeat Barbara Boxer in California, and maybe Harry Reid in Nevada. But Patty Murray will hold on in Washington, as will Fritz Hollings in South Carolina and Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, and the Democrats will take the seat in Indiana, leaving the GOP with a net gain of two or three unless ... unless Chuck Schumer beats Al D'Amato in New York. He will.

Democrats will take the biggest governorship of all, in California, but will lose in Maryland and in Colorado. (An insensitive but accurate memo to Colorado Dems: Try nominating a candidate with a Y chromosome.)

The House is the hardest of all to predict because 20 or so races will be decided by a handful of votes per district. The conventional wisdom right now is that the Republicans will pick up only 10 or so seats. I say 20 or so, a prediction based on a one-word explanation - money. The GOP has much, much more of it, and is pouring millions into TV advertisements this final week.

Jon Margolis covers Washington, D.C., from Vermont. This column, and the paper's other 19 pages, were printed on election day.

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