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New Kings Of The Hill And The Statehouse


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NEW KINGS OF THE HILL-AND THE STATEHOUSE

College football star J.C. Watts is an Oklahoma energy regulator. Former Charlotte (N.C.) Mayor Sue Myrick hawks Amway products. Sonny Bono is a pop-music throwback. And Nashville heart surgeon Bill Frist hadn't voted in a Republican primary until this year. They seem to have little in common, save this: All are conservative, antigovernment Republicans who--thanks to the Great Landslide of 1994--are part of the first GOP congressional majority in 42 years.

The seismic midterm shakeup propelled dozens of similarly obscure outsiders to office. And it answered the prayers of dozens of GOP Beltway insiders who have occupied political Siberia for decades. Now, the former backbenchers are seizing leadership posts. Together, the Republican veterans and neophytes will shove Congress to the right. Their first order of business: "to be fairer to business and lessen the government burden of taxes and regulation," says GOP pollster Glen Bolger.

Aside from their business-friendly leanings, the new Capitol Hill barons are a stunning contrast in style, seniority, and substance. There's 91-year-old Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has been a lawmaker for 40 years, and baby-faced House Budget Committee boss John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), born in 1952--fittingly, the last year his party captured the House.

GIANT KILLER. Joining the far-right wing of the party will be hard-line conservative Michael P. Flanagan, a Chicago attorney who knocked off Democratic giant Dan Rostenkowski, and Pennsylvania populist Richard J. Santorum, a crusading House reformer elected to the Senate. "I'm very much for the principle that the government that governs least governs best," Santorum says. The partisan shock troops will be countered by moderates such as incoming Senator Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who will work to forge bipartisan consensus.

Republican insiders expect Tennessee's Fred D. Thompson, an actor and former GOP counsel to the Senate Watergate committee, to become a freshman leader. Other likely Senate standouts: Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), an aide to former Vice-President Dan Quayle with strong support among blue-collar voters, and former Governor John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), an expert on management and budget matters.

The GOP's New Wave will lap at shores far beyond the Potomac. From George E. Pataki in New York to George W. Bush in Texas, incoming governors captured Democratic statehouses by pledging to reduce taxes and deliver services in a more businesslike manner.

Still, come January, the first-termers will just be learning the ropes. In the short term, at least, the New Republican Revolution will be led by old faces in new places. The dramatic shift is symbolized by the ascendancy of an archconservative pitbull, Jesse A. Helms of North Carolina, replacing an ultraliberal dandy, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Although sharp-elbowed critics such as Helms and Thurmond are sure to give President Clinton foreign policy fits, they probably will be less influential in shaping policy than the younger free-enterprise boosters poised to control the committees that oversee business issues. Says University of Delaware political scientist James Soles: "Bill Clinton might look back fondly at gridlock when compared to the return of the Ice Age in Washington."

Nowhere will the shift be more radical than at the House Energy & Commerce Committee, where Chairman "Big John" Dingell's influential reign will come to a screeching halt. The most likely successors are two probusiness conservatives, Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Calif.) or Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.). "Business should be dancing in the streets--John Dingell, the Great Regulator, is gone," crows Republican consultant Eddie Mahe Jr.

Another big House change: The new chairman of the Ways & Means Committee will be Bill Archer (R-Tex.), a strong advocate of capital-gains tax cuts and tax breaks for oil companies and entrepreneurs. Unlike Rostenkowski, the quintessential deal-cutting pol, Archer is a dour ex-banker and business executive who doesn't compromise easily.

In contrast, new Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) is a pragmatist admired by Democrats. He may be willing to work with Clintonites, particularly his old friend, Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta. But House Republicans, frozen out by the White House for two years, are less accommodating. "I don't have any intention of consulting with Bill Clinton on the budget," snarls Kasich.

Republican leaders have promised to restrain their combative troops. Incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) recently called Bill Clinton the enemy of "normal Americans." But on election night, he promised to trade in his GOP sword for the mantle of statesman. Likewise, as Kansan Bob Dole ascends to Senate Majority Leader, the biting Clinton critic says he's ready to discuss bipartisanship--and even to smile some more. So far, both men are talking a good game. Now, the question is whether they can deliver.Richard S. Dunham in Washington


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