King Newt's crown loses its lustre

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The Independent Online
The shouts of celebrating Republicans have barely died away from the streets of Washington, but Newt Gingrich, chief architect of their much-vaunted plans to overhaul America, has already run into turbulence - some caused by his own colleagues.

Less than a week after the Republicans took control of the US Congress for the first time in four decades, there are signs that their political, fiscal and social "revolution" may end up being watered down, and possibly even abandoned, in several areas.

Republican congressional leaders were smarting yesterday after encountering unexpected opposition from moderate party colleagues to plans to introduce a balanced budget amendment to the US constitution in an effort to tame the runaway multi-trillion dollar federal budget deficit.

The reform was one of the more widely promoted critical provisions of the "Contract With America" - the package of legislative reforms that Mr Gingrich, newly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, has promised to put to the vote in the House of Representatives within 100 days. Meanwhile the blunt-spoken Georgian was last night trying to extricate himself from another of the headline-grabbing muddles which seem to follow him around.

Last week, his hour of victory was sullied by news stories about his mother's revelation to a television interviewer that he once described Hillary Clinton as a "bitch". That "scandalette" has now faded from the limelight, being consigned to the growing pile of Gingrich bloopers ("Many White House staffers have taken drugs"; "Clintons are McGovernites" etc). So Washington can concentrate on the latest Gingrich imbroglio: the apparent firing of his newly appointed House historian.

A Gingrich spokesman said that the Republican leader, who is a former history professor, decided to sack Christina Jeffrey after discovering that she criticised a section in a school's curriculum on the Holocaust for inadequately reflecting the "Nazi point of view". But, a furious Ms Jeffrey announced that she had been "fired in the press", denounced the allegations as "scandalous", and said she was uncertain of her job status.

The incident is, of course, only a minor glitch - although a distracting one. Far more significant, from the Republicans' viewpoint, are the fortunes of their "Contract with America". Mr Gingrich has won brownie points from many Americans by promising a departure from Washington's usual tortoise-like methods by rattling through legislation at an unprecedented speed. Party heavyweights are keenly aware that there may be a price to pay in the 1996 election, if they fail to deliver.

Yet House Republican leaders have already had to delay a scheduled vote on the budget amendment for at least a week because of unforeseen internal opposition. The proposed law - which once seemed certain to pass - would ban Congress from spending more than it raises in any one year, or from increasing taxes without a three-fifths majority in both houses. But moderate Republicans and Democrats have balked at the so-called "super-majority" provision, which some say is unconstitutional.

Nor was this the only area where Republicans may re-write their original plans. While Republican strategists were beavering away on welfare reforms this week, Mr Gingrich suddenly seemed to reverse one of its more controversial elements: proposals to save money by barring legal immigrants who are not US citizens from receiving benefits.

Speaking at a press conference, he said that the issue would now have to be "revisited" as he was "very pro legal immigration" - a comment which appears to have taken by surprise his colleagues working on the scheme.

Last week Mr Gingrich was King of Capitol Hill; this week his advisers must be worried by the signs that his crown may already be tarnishing.