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Shortly before the 1996 election, several White House and Democratic Party officials confided a secret fear. Assuming that President Clinton was re-elected, they said, the worst thing that could happen to their party would be to take back control of the House of Representatives by five or 10 seats.

Why? Because that would make the Democrats responsible for everything the House did -- or failed to do -- while leaving them vulnerable to defections by any faction that wanted to hold Clinton hostage.

That is -- in reverse -- precisely the problem that now confronts Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., after a series of revolts that have spread from junior backbenchers to include at least some of his senior lieutenants. Beyond the schemes hatched by ambitious rivals, the true dilemma is that House Republicans lack the cohesion to function as a responsible majority in a House where they hold only 228 seats -- 10 more than a bare majority.

When I talked with Gingrich Sunday night on a flight to Atlanta, he pointed to the narrow majority as a major source of his problems but seemed serenely confident that he could ride out the storm. He told me he looked forward to today's scheduled caucus of House Republicans, and virtually invited the rebels to challenge him, saying that if they tried, he would lose no more than 60 votes "at worst."

But the problems are deeper than he seems to realize. They go back to the decision by Gingrich and his allies to force a government shutdown at the end of 1995, in order to make Clinton accept their budget. The public backlash forced Gingrich into his first major retreat. Frustrated conservatives, many of them freshmen zealous to remake Washington, wondered for the first time if Gingrich had the backbone to lead the revolution.

From that point on, it got worse. Two or three dozen "green" Republicans demanded and got from Gingrich a reversal of conservative-backed moves to scrap some environmental regulations. Even worse, from the conservatives' viewpoint, was the capitulation to the Democrats on raising the minimum wage. Gingrich allowed the issue to come to a vote because Northeastern Republicans threatened to jump ship. Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and all of the others in the GOP leadership voted no.

The November elections pared the Republican majority to the point that 11 defections could give the Democrats a victory. Embarrassed by ethics charges, Gingrich had to twist arms in January just to retain the speakership. The rumbles of discontent grew louder when he signed a budget agreement with Clinton that cut spending and taxes much less than conservatives wanted. Armey said publicly he was "not bound" by the deal.

It is not hard to see why the troops are restless. But dumping Gingrich, or even the whole leadership team, would not solve the ideological and political dilemma House Republicans face.

At least one-third of them, and perhaps more, concentrated among the newcomers from the South and the West, act as if the Contract With America were still in force and are eager to slash domestic spending and cut taxes across the board. They have managed to forget the near-death experience they suffered after the government shutdown, when Clinton was allowed to pose as the protector of Medicare and other popular programs.

On the other flank, one-fifth or one-sixth of the House Republicans, survivors of what was once a much larger GOP contingent from the Northeast and Midwest, believe that a wholesale assault on government and an accompanying emphasis on conservative social issues will leave them exposed to a suburban backlash.

Gingrich understands, as others seem not to, that there are few more seats Republicans can win in the South and the West until the 2000 census reapportions Congress. So their majority depends on preventing further losses in moderate, suburban districts in the Northeast and Midwest.

But a Republican speaker cannot lead the House for long without the support of his party's conservative core.

Gingrich told me he counts Armey a firm ally, and perhaps Armey can help keep the rebellious conservatives in check. But Gingrich has dismissed one lieutenant, Rep. Bill Paxon of New York, and has reason to be suspicious of two others, Reps. Tom DeLay of Texas and John Boehner of Ohio.

He stands on a slippery slope.

Washington Post Writers Group

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