Class of '94 Begins Campaign Divided

WASHINGTON -- They are defined, above all, by numbers. Seventy-three strong, they stormed the House a year ago -- the shock troops of a revolution that gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Bellicose and unyielding, the Republican freshmen immediately began enacting the "Contract With America," their 10-point campaign manifesto. United, they waged war on the welfare state, abortion, "tree-huggers," litigious lawyers and big government.

But one acrimonious, exhausting year later, as they open their re-election campaigns, the Class of '94 risks being defined by another number: zero.

That, at least for now, may well be the end result of the freshmen's yearlong, uncompromising obsession with producing a seven-year balanced budget.

Such a document seems a remote possibility now that House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has all but thrown in the towel on the effort, saying that Republicans are willing to settle for only a "down payment ... the first step" toward ending deficit spending.

In an abrupt about-face, most freshmen seem to be going along -- but with great trepidation because it will tear at their already strained class cohesion.

And Friday, as the battle-weary group meets for a daylong soul-searching session in Baltimore to discuss what went awry and how to regroup, at least 20 members are staying away -- many because they believe the group's in-your-face, lock-step approach to making change has become counterproductive.

Said Representative Sonny Bono: "We should now just meld into the total congress. At a certain point, the class interests diminish -- and can conflict with that of the total congress." Bono, who is boycotting the Baltimore session, said that there are 40 to 50 freshmen "who don't share my feelings, but most of the rest do."

Representative Mark Souder, a strong advocate of maintaining ideological purity among the freshmen, blames the emerging rift in part on Gingrich.

"There's some disagreement in the class -- but some of it has been encouraged by a leadership that isn't happy to see our independence," fumed Souder.

Because of the nascent dissension, many freshmen now intend to cement their ties with the 40-plus members of the little-heralded sophomore GOP class, most of whom are equally committed to the causes championed by the newcomers -- if not more so. Together, the two blocs are likely to emerge from the conference with fresh resolve not only to end deficit spending but to escalate efforts to terminate certain government agencies, enact campaign finance reform and tackle an array of social issues ranging from abortion restrictions to immigration reform.

Although the freshman class has not won the contest over a balanced budget agreement, it can rightfully claim credit for a sea change in the nature of the dialogue over deficit spending.

"What they did was reverse the direction of the policy debate," said David Mason of the Heritage Foundation. "In the fall of 1994, everybody was talking about nationalizing health care. Today, we're talking about balancing the budget and downsizing government. I don't think that's likely to be reversed in the foreseeable future."