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GINGRICH'S GAME OF CHICKEN COULD BACKFIRE ON REPUBLICANS

HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT Gingrich's latest power play is aimed at intimidating President Clinton into holding back the ultimate presidential weapon against a defiant Congress - the veto.

Gingrich recently predicted on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley" that the president would veto "a number of things" the GOP-controlled Congress intends to pass.George Bush, when he was president, also faced with a hostile Congress of a different party, issued 46 vetoes, only one of which was overridden.

Then Gingrich threatened, "We'll put them all (the vetoed bills) on the debt ceiling, and then he'll decide how big a crisis he wants."

Here we go again: the debt ceiling, that persistent political embarrassment.

Every so often, it must be raised to extend Treasury borrowing authority, without which the debt's limit will be reached and the government forced to shut down. By this spring, federal borrowing will exceed the current debt ceiling of $4.9 trillion.

If it is not lifted, the government will run out of cash, fail to pay Social Security benefits or interest payments on government bonds and default on its other obligations. Uncle Sam will be a deadbeat. Clearly, this is not to be taken lightly.

And yet over the years, the debt ceiling has been one of the biggest political footballs on Capitol Hill, utilized by the party out of power as a hostage for other bills and as a symbol of the majority's big-spending ways. As a minority, Republicans were always outmaneuvered in their efforts to make the debt limit a major crisis, but they did consistently vote against raising the ceiling. They left it to the Democrats, responsible for governing, to do the necessary dirty deed.

There is no evidence any individual Democrat was ever defeated for a procedural vote to raise the debt ceiling, but constantly having to do so may have contributed to the party's profligate image.

What makes Gingrich's gambit new is that it comes not from the minority but from a leader of the governing legislative party. The guy in charge now threatens to garland an elementary bookkeeping provision with irrelevant political trimmings. It amounts to a superbluff, with the very financial stability of the country at stake.

By even raising the possibility, Gingrich is testing the president's mettle. He may be overestimating Clinton's reputation for lacking conviction and folding under pressure. Surely Clinton will feel compelled to veto measures that junk his own programs and undercut the basic Democratic philosophy.

Gingrich is also risking his own credibility. If Clinton calls his bluff, vetoes the debt ceiling and leaves it up to Congress to bail out the country, it would obviously be irresponsible to let the federal government shut down.

Then the political question becomes: Who would get the blame for such a donnybrook, should it come to pass?

Would voters fault the president for not bowing to Gingrich's agenda? Would they find Gingrich reckless and blame him for abandoning his legislative responsibilities?

Or would the voters decide a pox on both their houses and look for Ross Perot or some fresh third party?

Such a dangerous showdown is likely to hurt both the president and Gingrich. The game of chicken is standard operating procedure in Washington but is best practiced backstage. It is widely disliked by the public, which views such posturing as selfish, wasteful and probably corrupt.

But Gingrich may have more to lose here than the president. He is widely seen as having the most influence of the two in shaping government policy. With that comes accountability.

A crisis such as Gingrich threatens would not seem to enforce the notion of going in the right direction.