A climactic final week to the Republicans' first 100 days in charge of Capitol Hill has begun with one stinging defeat on term limits, and could end with another and even more devastating setback on tax cuts, the economic centrepiece of the party's vaunted ``Contract with America''.
Yesterday Republican leaders were dismissing Democrats' gibes that the 10-point contract was variously ``unravelling'', ``in tatters'' or ``coming apart at the seams'', pointing out that eight of its provisions already have been passed in arguably the most productive - and certainly the most exhausting - House session since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. But at the very least the edges are fraying, badly.
Although the outcome was a foregone conclusion, the margin of this first House defeat for the contract was not. For passage of a constitutional amendment that would set limits to a congressman's or senator's tour of duty on Capitol Hill, the Republicans needed a two-thirds majority, 290 votes. In the event, the most they could muster for the most popular of the four versions on offer, imposing 12-year limits for both chambers, won by a slender 227 votes to 204, worse than the most pessimistic forecasts. The other three options could not even win majorities.
Worst still, the debate, pitting youthful and mostly conservative first- term legislators against a more moderate old guard, revealed a generational schism inside Republican ranks which no anti-Democrat tirade by Speaker Newt Gingrich could mask.
For once Democrats could gloat as Republicans tore into each other. Mark Sanford, a freshman from South Carolina, called his elders "an unwanted working class" - to which one of those elders, Henry Hyde of Illiniois, a 20-year veteran who served in the Second World War, retorted that "it makes me cringe" how young Republicans were using term limits "to tap into voters' worst instincts''.
In fact, that calculation may be wrong. Although the contract's call for term limits caught the anti-Washington mood of the electorate, the issue seems to have lost potency. Mr Gingrich may warn darkly that the Democrats who overwhelmingly voted against term limits would receive retribution at the ballot box in 1996, and activist groups may seek to hold referendums on term limits in each of the 50 states, but among the talk radio hosts, who did so much to further the cause last year, the feeling is that the issue is fading. "It's a mile wide but an inch deep," said one yesterday. Far more serious would be a mutiny next week on tax cuts, the signature item of the contract which the House will debate before, to the profound relief of weary Democrats and Republicans alike, it breaks for the Easter recess on 7 April.
That date is in fact six days before the allotted 100-day span expires, and Mr Gingrich plans to mark the occasion with a 30-minute address which at least one national network will carry live. Such an event, normally the preserve of the President alone, is remarkable. But all would be ruined by a dbcle over tax cuts.
The contract calls for a $188bn (£118bn) five-year package, embracing capital-gains tax cuts and a $500-per-child credit for families earning up to $200,000. But the party is split, with many Republicans arguing its generosity to the rich simply plays into the hands of the Democrats, and that the public is far more interested in reducing the budget deficit - and interest rates - than paying a dollar or two a week less in tax.
This view is especially strong in the Senate, where the Finance Committee chairman, Bob Packwood of Oregon, has said that spending cuts must take priority over tax cuts. Any Bill therefore along existing lines is likely to be sharply scaled back.