Washington — One overriding question looms in the wake of an election that again produced a divided government: Can a Republican President and a Democratic Congress cooperate sufficiently to solve the nation's urgent problems? President-elect George Bush and Democratic lawmakers are making conciliatory noises, promising to work together on the nation's business. Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D) of Washington, who will again be majority leader of the House of Representatives, sounds a positive note despite lingering ill feelings among some Republicans as well as Democrats.
``The challenge is to carry on in a way that produces constructive results,'' Mr. Foley says. ``Assuming that the administration approaches things in that spirit, I see no problem of post-election political warfare.''
At the same time Democratic members of Congress warn that a good working relationship will depend on two factors. One, whether Mr. Bush pursues ``moderate'' rather than extreme-conservative goals in such areas as the budget, health care, the environment, and education. And, two, whether he makes appointments that are moderate, as he did in selecting James Baker III to be secretary of state.
From the standpoint of action in Congress, political analysts do not rule out that much could be accomplished in the next two to four years. They note that:
Democrats are feeling so dejected about loss of the presidential election that they will want to show that they can govern through Congress.
The Senate will have a new majority leader eager to make his mark.
Speaker of the House Jim Wright will want to show he is in charge.
Democrats have a policy agenda, while Bush has yet to define one.
After a briefer-than-usual honeymoon period, the tugging and hauling that seems endemic to coalition government is bound to begin, analysts say. Having strengthened their hand in the Senate and the House, Democrats will be champing at the bit to push their own agenda - on everything from minimum wage and child care to clean air and education.
``There will be a lot of partisanship,'' says Norman Ornstein, a specialist on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. ``They will not say, `We will not work with the President,' but will say, `He's the President and we will do what's right for the country.'''
Dr. Ornstein says that under successive presidents the level of trust between the branches has gradually eroded. One reason is the expansion over the decades of presidential power and direct challenge to congressional prerogatives. Responding to that challenge, Congress, in turn, is playing a much larger role. It created its own budget process. It is increasingly involved in the field of foreign policy and global economics.
Others are less pessimistic about divisiveness under Bush, believing that he will prove less confrontational than President Reagan. He understands Congress, having been a congressman and having presided over the Senate as vice-president.
``I don't think the choice will be necessarily total cooperation or total gridlock,'' says Roger Porter, a former Reagan White House official. ``Bush is by nature not a confrontational personality, so he'll do everything he can to have a good working relationship.''
Unlike Reagan, Bush did not run against Congress but against Michael Dukakis. He carefully avoided saying anything nasty about Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, who will remain in the Senate as powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
And while the campaign itself was viewed negatively by many as ``issue-less,'' the bright side of that, analysts suggest, is that there were not many contentious domestic or international issues. ``The deficit is there, but otherwise there are no tremendous conflicting issues,'' comments Charles O. Jones, a congressional scholar at the University of Wisconsin.
The recent 100th Congress is cited as an example of the cooperation that is possible even with divided government. Despite the frictions during the Reagan years, Democrats and Republicans worked together to enact an extraordinary amount of legislation, including a drug bill, legislation to protect the elderly from catastrophic illness, overhaul of the welfare system, and civil rights protections.
``It was an astonishingly productive Congress for the last two years of a lame-duck presidency,'' Mr. Jones says.
Bush's top priority will be to forge an agenda that will enable him to take the initiative with Congress. When Ronald Reagan assumed office eight years ago, he brought a mandate for a specific set of policies. Bush has yet to spell out what he wants to do.
The budget deficit will present the first critical test. Throughout the campaign Bush insisted that he would oppose any tax increases. The question now, Democrats stress, is how flexible he will be on this issue.
``The Democrats will not try to overwhelm the administration with tax proposals,'' Foley says. ``Every tax increase in this administration had Ronald Reagan's acquiescence. So it's a problem Bush faces within his own administration - what will he propose so that we can jointly deal with it?''