`Joker' Gingrich exposes party to ridicule

FROM RUPERT CORNWELL

in Washington

The Republicans' drive to turn their "Contract with America" into law is beginning to run into distinctly choppy seas, buffeted by an overhectic timetable on Capitol Hill, ideological and generational splits within the party, and the waning appeal of its chief promoter, the House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

With the new Congress's first 100 days - within which Mr Gingrich had promised a House vote on each item in the Contract - almost two-thirds expired, problems are opening up on several fronts, from last week's defeat of the balanced budget amendment to the no-less emotive issues of term limits and tax cuts.

Even welfare reform, due on the House floor soon and on which everyone agrees in principle, is facing an uncertain future.

One major sign of trouble came on Tuesday evening when the House leadership abruptly postponed a key vote next week on limiting terms for Congressmen and Senators to 12 years.

As matters stand the measure faces certain defeat, doomed by opposition from Capitol Hill veterans who, for all their lipservice to the idea of limited terms, have no intention of cutting short their careers in Washington.

As Mr Gingrich knows full well, however, the price could very well be a backlash among voters - many of whom supported the Republicans in November because of their pledge to impose term limits, and keep legislators in Washington "in touch" with constituents back home.

Equal difficulties may be looming for tax cuts. Yesterday the House Ways and Means Chairman, Bill Archer, set out the Republican plan for child credits, savings incentives and capital gains tax cuts, totalling up to $700 bn (£432bn) over 10 years.

But, while it will sail through the House, the package could come to a complete halt in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats alike insist deficit cutting is the top priority.

Differences between the ponderous, idiosyncratic Senate and the House, with its stricter rules and greater party discipline, are as old as the US Constitution. But the Senate's slower pace is now causing visible frustration among House Republicans, as well as among some Republican Senate freshmen.

Hence this week's extraordinary attempt by a few of his younger conservative Republican colleagues to strip Senator Mark Hatfield, 72, of Oregon, of an important committee chairmanship as punishment for his vote that doomed the balanced budget amendment.

The move failed, but caused the Senate Majority leader Bob Dole, much embarrassment while a gleeful White House seized on the incident as proof of Republican intolerance and extremism.

Further ammunition is being provided by Mr Gingrich, whose cocksure, abrasive style wins few converts. Under constant needling from House Democrats over alleged ethics abuses, the Speaker has acquired a tendency to mangle facts - last week there was a tirade at a homeless shelter in Denver allegedly consuming $8m of taxpayers' money a year. No such shelter exists.

His verbal excesses are fast making him a daily comedy routine, most recently when he accused a number of US newspapers of being run by "socialists".

All of which makes the public uneasy. A Wall Street Journal poll yesterday showed Mr Gingrich's negative rating has risen 10 per cent in a month to 41 per cent.

Only 27 per cent have positive feelings about him. Moderate Republicans, the survey showed, hold the Speaker in scarcely greater esteem than they do President Bill Clinton.

Mr Dole, by contrast, saw his positive rating rise from 42 to 51 per cent, despite the defeat of the budget amendment.

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