Charge of Gingrich's cavalry fizzles out

Newt Gingrich has led the charge of his Republican cavalry through the US House of Representatives with heroic energy, making good on his promise to launch the "Contract with America'' - his manifesto for revolution - within the first 100 days of the 1995 Congress.

And yet, according to polls, the House Speaker's popularity has nosedived, the public remains as cynical about Congress as ever and half of the electorate do not even know what the Contract is. The Senate minority leader, Thomas Daschle, said the Republicans' performance reminded him of a remark by a South Dakota Indian chief in his native state: "Much thunder; no rain."

Mr Gingrich promised that the House of Representatives, under Republican control for the first time in 40 years, would vote on the 10 items of legislation in the Contract by the end of the first congressional session, which is due to end on Friday, six days short of the 100-day mark. With one item left - a tax-cutting bill - it seems the Speaker will live up to his word.

His immediate problem is that his troops, for whom working till midnight has become routine, are becoming mutinous. More than 100 members of the House have signalled unwillingness to approve the Contract's tax-cutting proposals as they now stand, arguing that they would undermine the broader Republican objective - elevated by Mr Gingrich to an article of faith - of balancing the budget by 2002. "We're still arguing," Mr Gingrich said on Sunday, "and I'm not sure we'll get a compromise."

While the betting yesterday was that Mr Gingrich would succeed in bulldozing this week's vote through, Senator Daschle's point - "Where's the rain?" - might make some Republicans pause and ponder what exactly they have achieved, even as they preen themselves before the television cameras at an end-of-term party they plan to hold in Congress on Friday.

Of the nine Contract items to have been through the House, only two have become law: a bill subjecting Congress to the same laws as other Americans and one curbing the congressional practice of imposing mandates on the state governments without providing necessary funds.

Of the other seven bills, one imposing 12-year-limits on congressional tenure was defeated by the House itself; one seeking legally to enforce a balanced budget was thrown out by the Senate; and the others are still before the Senate, whose approval they require before President Bill Clinton decides whether to exercise his right to a veto or sign them into law.

For all the zeal in the House, therefore, the chances that, for example, the welfare-reform bill will make it through the Senate without serious amendment are almost as remote as the notion that President Clinton would ever be persuaded to approve it.

Last week a poll in USA Today indicated that 61 per cent of Americans disapproved of the way Congress was doing its job; 64 per cent believed the congressional Republicans were embarked not on real change but on "politics as usual'' and, while 32 per cent favoured the Contract, 9 per cent had no opinion and 47 per cent had never heard of it. Other polls, conducted in various parts of the country in the past month, have consistently suggested that more people view Mr Gingrich negatively rather than positively.

All of which has led a number of American commentators to the conclusion that the Second American Revolution, as Mr Gingrich calls it, has occurred in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate, nor in the White House nor beyond the Washington Beltway (ring-road), in the rest of the United States.