Gone in 12 years -- corruption, spending, hubris derail GOP ride

Sunday, November 12, 2006


The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- By order of the voters, the Republican revolution in Congress is over.

A dozen years ago, Newt Gingrich and his fellow revolutionaries swept to power, the "Contract with America" their conservative calling card.

"We will roll back federal programs, laws and regulations from A to Z. From Amtrak to zoological studies," said Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, the majority leader, as Republicans took power.

There were taxes to be cut, regulations to be overturned, perhaps entire federal departments to be shuttered.

Certain of their mandate, Republicans courted controversy.

No one more than Gingrich, who once famously complained that he had been treated discourteously by President Clinton and his staff aboard Air Force One. If that was not impolitic enough, he told a roomful of reporters that his anger had contributed to a government shutdown that inconvenienced millions.

"We were always in such a sure-fire hurry to change the world," the Georgian wrote in a 1998 book.

In their first year in power, the revolutionaries passed legislation to squeeze $270 billion from Medicare as part of a seven-year plan to balance the budget. Gingrich called it "a great victory of courage over fear," a slap at Democrats who said it would take money away from older people to pay for tax cuts for the rich.

When the legislation passed, Republicans cheered on one side of the House chamber while Democrats lined up on the other, waving farewell and mouthing the word "bye" as though GOP lawmakers had committed political suicide.

Clinton vetoed the bill. But Republicans held their majority in the 1996 elections, a critical first test at the polls.

Ironically, Clinton helped them. Not long before the elections, he decided to sign a Republican-crafted overhaul of welfare, calculating that would help him win a second term in the White House. Loathed by the liberals, the welfare bill marked one of the most fundamental changes produced by the 12-year Republican majority.

The spring after the election, Clinton and House and Senate Republicans agreed on a deal to balance the budget over five years. The conservatives won tax cuts and billions in savings, some of it from Medicare. They agreed to expand government by creating a new program of health care for children.

Gingrich told the GOP rank and file the deal was "the completion of the 'Contract with America.'"

The following year, House Republicans tried to nationalize midterm elections over Clinton and his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

It was classic political overreach. The GOP kept power for two more years, but unexpectedly lost seats on Election Day in 1998.

Gingrich was soon on his way out.

Shrugging off the election returns, Republicans returned to Washington that fall. With Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, the powerful whip, leading the way, they impeached the president.

"We vote for our honor, which is the only thing we get to take with us to the grave," said Rep. Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chaired the proceedings.

The vote was Dec. 19, 1998, arguably the most tumultuous day of an era. Rep. Bob Livingston, in line to become speaker, asked the president to quit -- then announced he was leaving Congress because of his own extramarital affairs.

As expected, Republicans had nowhere near the two-thirds support they needed to remove Clinton from office. With Chief Justice William Rehnquist presiding, a Senate trial ended in acquittal in early 1999.

Republicans pivoted when George W. won the White House in 2000.

Now their job was to enact the administration's agenda. Speaker Dennis Hastert, who had succeeded Gingrich in 1999, favored a methodical, grind-it-out approach to governing.

Tax cuts followed, year after year. So, too, did restrictions on abortion and other legislation sought by cultural conservatives. Senate Democrats filibustered conservative judicial nominees and paid a heavy price at the polls.

Passage of Medicare prescription drug legislation was Bush's toughest sell with conservatives, many of whom opposed a new benefit program.

The terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001, helped Republicans to win elections in 2002, then again in 2004.

Gradually, the war in Iraq grew unpopular. But unwilling to abandon the president, Republicans in the House and Senate voted against setting a timetable for the beginning of a troop withdrawal.

Over time, House Republicans, in particular, become addicted to pork-barrel spending. The number of such home-district projects reached record levels as lawmakers inserted them into spending bills.

Many junior Republicans demanded change. Many senior Republicans -- those who rose to power in 1994 -- resisted.

In November 2004, the self-styled party of reform changed its rules to protect DeLay, saying he could remain in his leadership post even if he was indicted.

Within two months, the GOP reversed course.

Eight months later, DeLay was indicted on state campaign finance charges. He has denied all wrongdoing.

The unraveling of the revolution picked up speed.

In November 2005, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors in exchange for government contracts and other favors.

In the same month, one of DeLay's former aides pleaded guilty to corruption charges stemming from activities of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

This past January, Abramoff reached a deal with prosecutors and agreed to cooperate with their corruption investigation.

Not long later, DeLay stepped down as majority leader as House Republicans grew concerned about the taint of scandal.

A little more than a month before this month's elections, Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., quit in a scandal involving sexually explicit computer messages he had sent to teenage pages.

In October, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio pleaded guilty in the Abramoff probe.

"Over time, I allowed myself to get too comfortable with the way things have been done in Washington, D.C., for too long," he said in a statement.

On election night, in balloting shaped by the war in Iraq and scandal at home, Democrats won control of the House and the Senate.

EDITOR'S NOTE -- David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.

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