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WILL NEW FACES MASK OLD IDEAS WHEN HOUSE CONVENES IN JANUARY?

As this year's toll of departing and defeated House incumbents grows ever larger, speculation is mounting about what kind of creature the House will be when the 103rd Congress assembles in January.

It will, of course, brim with fresh faces. At least a quarter of the members will be newcomers, with the final number dependent on how many incumbents get tossed out in November. The House will have more blacks, more Hispanics, more women and possibly more Republicans.But beyond these quantifiable changes, many questions remain about the quality of the change. What novel ideas will a reconstituted House offer to address the nation's problems? Will the new House and the White House search harder for common ground?

At the GOP convention in Houston, President Bush imagined the new House this way: "One hundred and fifty new members - from both parties - will be coming to Washington this fall. And every one will have a fresh view of America's future."

Even Bush opponents share his belief that high turnover in the House will help shatter the status quo in Washington. Liberals see potential for a more activist legislature. Republicans hope to leverage the anti-incumbent mood to their advantage. Followers of Ross Perot hope for a House that will face up to the federal budget deficit.

The sheer size of the House freshman class virtually ensures a substantial legislative impact - particularly if it hits town at the same time as Bill Clinton's first-hundred-days agenda as president.

But amid all the high expectations, a word of caution is advised.

In some important ways, the campaigns of many potential House newcomers resemble those of the incumbents. So even if the new House includes 100-plus first-termers, there is a possibility that the body could have some of the same habits as the current House.

When pollsters and reporters sample the citizenry these days, two criticisms of Congress recur: One, it spends money the country doesn't have; and two, it responds more to special interest groups than to the average citizen.

But on these two counts, few campaigns of House challengers and open-seat contenders seem to be laying a foundation for fundamental change.

On the subject of federal spending, a sampling of stump speeches by would-be House newcomers yields business-as-usual blandishments aimed at pleasing the hometown crowd. Farm-state hopefuls decry Washington's wasteful ways with money, but they have only kind words for federal agricultural subsidies. Many House aspirants say Pentagon cuts can fund unmet social needs, but if a candidate's district has a key military base or a big defense contractor, voters are told that those should be spared the budget ax.

Similarly, much of the newcomers' rhetoric about the "gridlock" caused by "special interests" in Washington has a familiar ring. Liberal candidates decry the power of "big business" and conservative social-issue groups, but typically these candidates accept political action committee (PAC) money from labor unions and activist groups on the left. For conservative candidates, the situation is usually a mirror image. There are few candidates who have sworn off PAC money.

In response to perceived anti-Washington sentiment in the electorate, many newcomer Republican candidates and even some Democrats are supporting a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, a presidential line-item veto and limits on congressional terms - devices that could produce new fiscal policies. A budget amendment or a line-item veto could force officeholders to make some hard choices and demand shared sacrifice.

But potential House freshmen - like many current incumbents, and like Bush and Clinton - stop short of specifying what choices and sacrifices might lie ahead. They are unwilling to risk telling voters to make do with less and expect to pay more until federal expenses are brought into line with revenues.

The result of all this is that the 103rd Congress may convene with the public knowing less about more of its representatives than at any time in the nation's recent history.