The House voted down four proposed constitutional amendments imposing congressional term limits after combatants heatedly traded charges of hypocrisy and sham for nearly nine hours Wednesday.
Republicans fell 63 votes short of reaching the needed two-thirds majority on the GOP leadership bill -- one that would shield incumbents from term limits for at least 12 years.
The 227-204 vote marked the first House defeat of a proposal cited in the "Contract With America," the 1994 GOP campaign platform. The contract only promised a vote on it, not passage.
The White House said it was pleased with the House vote, noting that President Clinton long has been opposed to term limits.
"The president believes the American people can best decide whether elected officials should be sent back for additional terms," presidential spokeswoman Ginny Terzano said from Tallahassee, Fla.
Although 39 Republicans voted against the main Republican proposal, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., blamed the Democrats for the defeat and promised to use it as a campaign issue in next year's congressional elections.
"Everywhere in America people say they are sick of the professional politician," he said, "and they want to take the process back."
Term limits will be listed first in the party's new "contract," he said. "It will be H.R. 1 and will be voted on first in the new Congress if the Republicans are in the majority."
Gingrich said the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a suit against states setting congressional term limits. He said that if the court permits, he may ask Congress to pass a statute setting congressional term limits. That, he noted, would require a majority of 218 votes instead of the 290 votes needed to pass a proposed constitutional amendment.
In addition to the 39 GOP "no" votes, Steve Stockman,R-Texas, voted "present."
Although Gingrich acknowledged them in a news conference earlier in the day, the GOP defections represented the most stinging defeat suffered by Gingrich since being elected speaker 10 weeks ago.
Voting for the main Republican proposal were Reps. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst; Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg; and Amory Houghton Jr.,R-Corning. Voting against it was Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda.
One of Gingrich's key lieutenants, House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., denounced "the angry, pessimistic populism that drives" the term-limits movement.
"Our negative campaigning and mudslinging have made anger the national recreation," Hyde said. "But that's our fault, not the system's."
Even before the vote, Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott,R-Miss., pronounced term limits dead in the 104th Congress.
GOP hopes of recycling the loss as a 1996 election issue were undermined by bipartisan opposition to a proposed Democratic amendment making 12-year term limits retroactive; that is, effective immediately upon ratification. It gained only 135 votes, with 297 opposed.
The Democratic proposal was called the only "real" term limits amendment by Texas Republican Joe Barton.
"This is the only vote that affects people today," Barton said. "Unless you're willing to limit yourself individually, you're not really for term limits."
Seventy percent of the Republicans backed the GOP leadership plan, and less than half the Democrats did. The measure would impose 12-year limits on service in the House and Senate. The limits would be imposed only after 38 states had ratified the proposed amendment.
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., sponsor of the retroactive version, said the ratification process can take no less than two and as many as seven years from the time Congress approves.
That means, he said, the Republican leadership would give incumbents between 14 and 19 years before they would be affected by the term limit. Anything other than immediate effect is "an illusion," Dingell said. But he admitted he does not support any term-limit bill.
The voting offered other odd twists and turns. LaFalce, who said earlier he opposes any kind of term limit, voted for the restrictive Democratic bill. Paxon, Quinn and Houghton, all supporters of limits, voted against the tough Democratic measure.
Another alternative -- limiting lawmakers to three two-year terms -- received only 114 votes, with 316 against. Yet another -- providing a 12-year limit while permitting states to decide on less -- gained 164, with 265 against.
The fourth version was the main GOP plan that failed on the final roll call of the night. It was silent on the issue of state prerogatives.
Democrats ridiculed Republicans for refusing to make term limits retroactive.
And the American Conservative Union aired a television commercial in the Washington area criticizing 63 lawmakers it said opposed term limits, had bounced checks at the now-closed House bank and had several years ago voted for a congressional pay raise.