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Republicans Define Revolution in Wake of Election Landslide

By Dan Balz
The Washington Post

Barely a week after their electoral landslide, Republicans are beginning to refine their revolution.

With House speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and others in the House moving swiftly to develop a legislative agenda for the 104th Congress, a debate is brewing within the party over whether Republicans should enact conservative policies in Washington or turn back power to states and cities and let officials there take action.

On issues ranging from welfare reform to education and crime, Republicans may find competing voices within their party over how they can most faithfully carry out the mandate from voters. They also are weighing the importance of moving quickly to bring about changes voters want against the danger of trying to undo in a matter of months programs it took Democrats generations to put into place.

There is widespread agreement among Republicans that the federal government is too big and too powerful. But the tensions over whether to lead the revolution from Washington or let state and local governments take much of the lead were evident Monday at a conference sponsored by the conservative Empower America.

There, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., the likely chairwoman of the Senate Education and Labor Committee, outlined a proposal for state and federal governments to swap authority for various welfare and health care programs. Under her plan, the federal government would turn responsiblity for Aid To Families with Dependent Children, food stamps and the Women, Infants and Children program over to the states and would assume the state's share of Medicaid.

That would give states, among other things, the freedom to reform the welfare program as they see fit, without having to seek waivers from Washington for changes that deviate from federal standards.

But the House Republicans' "Contract With America" calls for Congress to enact specific reforms in welfare. These include requiring states to move welfare recipients off the rolls after two years, denial of benefits to women under 18 who have children out of wedlock and not providing additional benefits to welfare mothers who have more children.

The thrust of the GOP contract plan is to give states more responsibility and the reforms it calls for are common in welfare reform experiments underway in the states. But Gerald Miller, who heads the Michigan Department of Social Services, said Monday he preferred to see Washington enact limited reforms and give the states greater latitude to solve the problems themselves. "We have to be careful about how prescriptive we are (in Washington)," he said.

Some of this debate is a matter of degree, not a dramatic difference in philosophy among Republicans. Republican governors have been the innovators on domestic policy within the GOP in large part because Republicans in Washington, even during the Reagan and Bush presidencies, did not control the legislative machinery.

Now that Republicans have power, some GOP leaders fear there may be a tendency to centralize conservative power within Congress.

Republicans want to enact a new crime bill to replace the bill signed last summer by President Clinton. Among the proposals in the House GOP contract is to set mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes or violent crimes that involve a gun. But some conservatives argue that crime is a state and local responsiblity and that those governments should determine sentencing.

On education, Alexander argued Monday that Washington should not dictate, as it does now, everything from what the world history classroom standard should be or what the local weapons policy of a school should be. He said the response to last week's electoral upheaval should be, literally and figuratively, to "send Washington home."

Alexander hosted the Empower America session to highlight his "cut their pay and send them home" prescription for the Congress.

One speaker was Phil Burgess, who heads the Center for the New West in Denver. Burgess is a Democrat, but what he had to say about redistributing power away from Washington is being embraced by Republicans. He said most federal agencies would operate more effectively if they were moved outside of Washington. The Agriculture Department, for example, could be moved to Des Moines or Kansas City; the Energy Department to Dallas; Interior to Denver and Treasury to New York.