Republican split over Congress term limits

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With Republican dominion of Capitol Hill less than a fortnight old, three key promises of the "Contract with America" - mandatory term limits for Congressmen, a balanced budget requirement and welfare reform - are already generating splits within the party which, in the case of term limits, may doom the idea entirely.

The House is due to vote on term limits by the end of March. But the initial skirmishes have only served to highlight differences on an issue which may well turn public opinion against the very Republicans who rode it with such success last November.

The devil is in the detail over what limits should be introduced. The argument pits the fiery new intake of Republicans who favour a maximum of three or four two-year terms for Congressmen and two six-year terms for Senators, and others like the Speaker,Newt Gingrich who say six years is "too short a learning curve"; they favour a 12-year limit for House and Senate.

The quarrel extends much further than numbers, or even the Republican divide between pragmatists and radicals which bedevils party strategy on welfare reform. It concerns the very nature of a Congressman's job. Many experienced members of Congress have no desire to put themselves prematurely out of a job, even if polls suggest two thirds of voters favour doing precisely that.

The movement is stronger in the House, where advocates have formed the so-called Team 290 (after the number of votes required for the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment). In the Senate it is doubtful whether even half the 100 members favour the proposal. Voters in more than 20 states have signed on to term limits for their own legislatures. If Congress passes a measure applying them to itself, the required endorsement from 38 of 50 states will swiftly follow. If Congr ess refuses,the electorate could take its revenge as early as 1996.

Problems are mounting too for the constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. It probably commands a two-thirds majority. But the price of passage will be abandonment by conservatives of their demand for a three-fifths "super majority" approvalin Congress for future tax increases.

Welfare reform is creating separate tensions, between spending-slashing ideologues who dominate on Capitol Hill, and Republican governors who want Congress to hand over responsibility and money for welfare management to the states themselves.

Centre stage remains Mr Gingrich whose capacity for attracting trouble is matched only by his ruthlessness in putting it behind him. The continuing row over his dealings with a publishing company controlled by the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch may prove the exception.

Mr Gingrich may have relinquished his $4.5m (£2.8m) advance from HarperCollins. But it now emerges that Mr Murdoch's chief Washington lobbyist attended a meeting between the two men on 28 November, and that they discussed Mr Murdoch's multi-billion dollar dispute over federal media regulations.

Both say nothing wrong took place. But Democrats have smelt blood, and may succeed in securing an independent counsel to examine the one-time book deal and various other controversial Gingrich initiatives.