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IT'S THE SAME OLD CONGRESS UNDER GOP RULE

In the wilderness for four decades, Capitol Hill Republicans deplored what they saw:

A Congress addicted to the special interests. A legislative diet of huge helpings of pork. An assembly of career politicians obsessed with re-election. And -- the only thing that kept their faint hopes of power alive -- a majority that was so racked with factions that the whole contentious coalition seemed as if it might collapse of its own weight.

Now, four years into the Republican ascendancy, the GOP Congress that returns next month to deal with whatever independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivers to them looks a lot like the old Democratic Congress.

It may be true that, as Rep. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire says, there are "substantive Republican achievements that never would have been signed into law had there been a Democrat Congress." Even so, the Republicans and Democrats of Capitol Hill have more in common with each other than with the public they came to Washington to serve. Here are some of the ways:

They are slaves to money. In the old days, money was the mother's milk of politics. Today it's the appetizer, entree and dessert. Take one small episode, Senate consideration of an amendment affecting the tax deductibility of gambling losses.

Common Cause, the self-styled citizens' lobby, found that gambling interests sent four checks of $50,000 or more to GOP congressional campaign committees in the first three months of 1998. On the day Mirage Resorts gave $250,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Starwood Lodging Corp., owner of Caesar's Palace, sent $100,000 to the Republican Senate-House Dinner Committee. The amendment was withdrawn.

Tobacco interests weren't bashful about unregulated soft money, either, and the industry's contributions shifted when power inside the Congress shifted. In the 1993-94 election cycle, tobacco contributions were split about evenly between Republicans and Democrats. This election cycle, tobacco interests sent nearly four times as much money to Republican lawmakers as to Democratic ones. Tobacco legislation died in the Senate last month.

Pork doesn't taste so bad after all. The GOP insurgents vowed to change the way Capitol Hill works, but they didn't exactly go cold turkey on pork. The transportation bill that passed Congress last month was a veritable barbecue of spending that included such goodies as bike paths, flush toilets for rest stops and a $38 million, eight-lane bridge in Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's hometown of Pascagoula, Miss.

The business of politics is re-election. The Republican rebels -- a vintner, a seed-company representative, a textile executive, a caterer -- came to Washington with a lot of brave talk about being citizen-lawmakers and then returning to their plows back home. Term-limit legislation has gone nowhere. And though some of the House rebels are running for the Senate, none is voluntarily walking away from the legislative life.

Congress is a House divided, and a Senate, too. Increasingly, congressional Republicans are defined by the divides within the House and Senate. Since the GOP seized power in the 1994 elections, the business interests within the party, who are worried about taxes and regulation, have wrestled for control of the agenda with social activists, whose priority is abortion, school prayer and lifestyle issues. Corporate interests cringe when Republican lawmakers talk about economic retaliation against regimes that practice religious persecution. The next big battle: the effort, supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to win $18 billion for the International Monetary Fund, a measure that has become ensnared in a dispute about overseas family-planning policy.

But it is more complicated than simply a struggle between social conservatives and economic conservatives. Within the economic wing of the party, the interests of big business and small business still clash -- and that itself is a cultural clash that provides the GOP leadership with fitful nights.

And even on issues with no apparent economic divide, the GOP can't come to a quiet resolution. All summer Republicans grappled with a proposal for new rules restricting HMOs from denying treatment for their subscribers. On one side is a lawmaker who is a dentist from Evans, Ga., who has drafted a bill to give patients new power in disputes with the HMOs. On the other is virtually the entire Republican congressional leadership.

Boston Globe

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