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Threat to Republicans is themselves

The Republicans in the House of Representatives have just given a demonstration of how their party can squander the opportunity created by the midterm election to become the long-term majority in this country.

They have a popular president, control of both House and Senate and a demoralized Democratic opposition. The most imminent threat to their success is their own excess.

So what do they do? At the first opportunity, they demonstrate exactly the penchant for pandering to special interests that got them in such trouble during the Newt Gingrich days, following their first takeover of Congress in 1994.

The Republicans then in power _ notably Speaker Gingrich and his two top deputies, Reps. Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, both of Texas, saw their victory as a mandate to give the K Street lobbyists a bountiful payback for their industries' and associations' investments in the GOP.

Ultimately, Gingrich was pushed overboard by his own troops after the Democrats made him too damaging a symbol of that ideological fervor and interest-group influence. But Armey and DeLay remain, and last week, they showed they had not learned much from the experience.

Armey, who is retiring this month and turning over the majority leader's job to DeLay, had one last bit of business to transact _ passage of the bill to create a new Department of Homeland Security.

It had passed the House earlier this year, but was hung up in the Senate over a dispute on the restrictions the White House wanted on union rights of employees. Republicans used the issue effectively in Senate races, notably the upset of Georgia Democrat Max Cleland, and Senate Democrats decided after the election they could no longer hold out for their union allies.

To speed things along, Armey brought the bill back for a second vote in the House, assuring members that it "is essentially the same bill that was passed by the House of Representatives last July."

"There have been a few modifications that have been made in the bill," he said disarmingly, "but nothing that has not been fully vetted with the committees of jurisdiction and little that members of this body will find objectionable."

That was, to put it politely, disingenuous.

Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California was quickly on his feet, pointing to several provisions his staff had uncovered in the few hours the bill was available _ provisions which had never been discussed in committee or debated by the House.

One reversed the previous House decision to forbid the new department from giving contracts to companies that have established overseas addresses in order to avoid paying U.S. taxes. Back in July, when the heat was on corporate miscreants, the House had voted, 318-110, to cut off runaway corporations. Now, in the dark of night, they were taken off the hook.

Another new provision gave immunity from liability suits to companies that make faulty antiterrorism devices. Companies that manufacture "faulty bomb detectors or gas masks" cannot be sued, Waxman said, "even if they engage in intentional wrongdoing."

The pharmaceutical industry, a major contributor to this fall's successful Republican campaigns, was given a provision that would restrict the liability of companies that make smallpox vaccine in cases where the recipient falls ill or dies. And Eli Lilly got protection on a different product that has been the subject of litigation.

And finally, the Washington Post reported, DeLay put in a provision putting Texas A&M in line for the first piece of pork from the new department, a university research center on homeland security.

During the truncated debate, Waxman twice challenged Armey _ or anyone else _ to explain and defend these special-interest add-ons. He was met by thundering silence.

The Republicans just did it, and this time, they escaped with almost no public notice. News coverage focused on the big win the new department represents for the president.

But Gingrich & Co. rolled up a slew of early victories, too, until people started asking what was going on.

In an election survey this month, Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan's pollster, found that only one-quarter of the voters actually wanted a Republican takeover of Congress, barely more than wanted Democratic control of both houses, while a 43 percent plurality favored continued division. On another pair of questions, most said a Republican Congress would be good for business but bad for the economy.

That's a message Republicans would ignore at their peril _ as they seem to be doing.

+ David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group