Clinton's Task: to Knit Congressional Alliances

Complex initiatives are not likely to split along party lines

LAWMAKERS return to their mahogany and walnut seats on Capitol Hill today with the concerns of constituents fresh in mind and the knowledge that the next few months will be substantially different.

Gone will be much of the partisan bickering over budget and taxes that left Republicans and Democrats as estranged as Capulets and Montagues before the summer recess.

It will be replaced by more inter-party cooperation and intra-party squabbling as new alliances emerge on a wide range of complex issues.

In some cases, such as on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Republicans may be the key to success for the White House. On others - health care, crime, welfare reform - at least some cross-aisle cooperation is expected, though the fights may be no less intense.

The issues will test the Clinton administration's ability to build coalitions and muster support in grass-roots America. They present Democrats and Republicans with new opportunities - and dangers.

``The dynamics will be dramatically different than during consideration of the budget,'' says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. ``Local interests are pushing these issues.''

Most lawmakers, as part of their month-long respite, have been finding out what those local interests are - at Rotary clubs, church bazaars, and VFW halls. As always, the results have been enlightening and a smelling salt.

``People want to see results,'' says Rep. Sam Coppersmith (D) of Arizona. ``They want to see change, but they are not exactly sure what that means.''

In his town meetings and strolls through the Minnesota state fair, Rep. Rod Grams (R) of Minnesota found the anger with Washington palpable. He discovered one of his favorite lines - about Congress's approval rating being on par with a used car salesman's, and a man stands up and says, ``Don't compare me with you guys!''- resonated a little too much.

``People are frustrated that Congress hasn't changed the way they thought it would,'' says Mr. Grams, a member of this year's huge freshman class.

Much of the anger in his suburban Minneapolis-St.Paul district pivots on the recently enacted tax increases. But he also hears a lot about changing the way Congress operates - the need for a balanced budget amendment, line-item veto, and term limits.

On another dominant topic, health care, individuals are confused, concerned, and, above all, want to know how changes are going to affect them.

Mr. Coppersmith says business groups are interested in how the plan is going to be paid for, while the elderly wonder whether they will get a break on prescription drugs.

Similarly, the free-trade agreement draws widely divergent views. Rep. Gene Green (D) of Texas, who hasn't decided yet if he will support the treaty, and thus his party's president, hoped to crystallize his views with a return to his urban Houston district.

It didn't happen. He finds sentiment split ``right down the middle,'' with business interests thinking it is a good idea, and other constituents fearing a job exodus and a befouled environment.

That ambivalence, of course, will be reflected on Capitol Hill. Mr. Clinton will get plenty of GOP support on the trade agreement, which would lower tariffs and remove trade barriers with Mexico and Canada.

But he faces substantial opposition from Democrats, spearheaded by majority whip David Bonior (D) of Michigan in the House and a mix of strident outside opponents - liberal Jesse Jackson, conservative Patrick Buchanan, and Texas billionaire Ross Perot.

GOP support for the administration's health care program is less certain. The president is expected to unveil his plan Sept. 22. Coalitions are forming around each choke point in the debate - access, quality control, costs.

At least some bipartisan cooperation is expected on a crime bill. Though Republicans filibusterd to kill previous Democratic legislation on crime, some analysts expect the two sides to work out an agreement this time, given the importance of the issue to voters. There will be differences, however, over the death penalty and gun control.

Overhauling the welfare system to end life-time dependence on government payments could pose another opportunity for the White House for cross-party alliances. But some analysts doubt the administration will push the issue this year out of fear of further antagonizing the Congressional Black Caucus.

While there may be a few areas for GOP-Democratic cooperation, there will be plenty of rifts as well. GOP strategist Bill McInturff says the support Republicans give the president on NAFTA should allow them to exact something on spending cuts or campaign finance reform.

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