WASHINGTON — THE Republican and Democratic teams are in place. The leaders, including House Speaker-designate Newt Gingrich, are ready to go. Now Washington is bracing for The Big Game.
Already the play on Capitol Hill and in the White House has gotten rougher. Feisty House Republicans have seized the agenda. In the Senate, a class of aggressive, youthful conservative Republicans has gotten a foothold. Experts predict a nasty brawl.
Yet even victorious Republicans are cautious. Mr. Gingrich reminds Republicans, heady with their new-found status, that not since the 1920s has the GOP managed to hold power in the House for more than four years. They could quickly be back outside, looking in.
Democrats, meanwhile, are divided and struggling for strategy. They have fallen back on their traditional, liberal leaders, and some Southern conservatives talk of defecting. Withdrawal of Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen also came as a blow (Resignation, Page 3). Democrats haven't been out of power on the Hill in 40 years, and they risk losing the presidency in 1996. Students of Congress expect fierce, partisan battles over welfare reform, term limits, and the budget.
``The 104th Congress will be contentious, in a nasty way,'' predicts Barbara Sinclair, a political scientist at the University of California at Riverside. ``You'll start seeing attempts by the Republicans to investigate everything about the administration.... And all the talk about orphanages: We need to remind ourselves how different this is from the traditionally accepted discourse.''
With the House driving the agenda, embodied in Gingrich's ``Contract With America,'' the Democrats have a couple of options. They can be obstructive, and try to prevent the Republicans from building a record to run on in 1996. But the Republicans could counter with charges of gridlock.
Or Democrats could let the Contract, a group of 10 conservative bills, go through and hope to make the Republicans appear extreme. This is also risky, since the impact of much of that legislation would not be felt until after the 104th Congress.
These equations are nothing new to modern politics. But what complicates them in the 104th Congress is a shift in party control and a web of unfamiliar, new relationships, each affecting the course of legislation. The first is between President Clinton and congressional Republicans.
When Harry Truman faced a Republican Congress in 1947, he had two aces up his sleeve. Speaker Joe Martin was considered a mediocre legislator without a great deal of clout. And Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, proved a vital Truman ally.
President Clinton faces a vastly different problem. Mr. Gingrich is restructuring the House in such a way that could make him the most powerful Speaker of the century, driving a strong agenda. Backing him up will be two other powerful Texan conservatives: Rep. Dick Armey as House majority leader and Rep. Tom DeLay as majority whip.
Running the Senate is majority leader Bob Dole of Kansas, a powerful, partisan Republican with presidential aspirations.
Clinton will likely rely on the veto pen, but the Dole-Gingrich problem could also widen the split between the White House and congressional Democrats. ``Clinton can no longer let congressional Democrats take the lead,'' says Dave Mason, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. ``There will be sparks between the Democrats in Congress and the White House. Democrats could be left out if Clinton makes arrangements with Gingrich and Dole.''
But John Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, sees a possibility for compromise between Congress and the White House. ``Both Dole and Gingrich have incentives to pass legislation. They are chamber leaders, not partisan leaders,'' he says.
Another complicating factor is Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, who edged out Mr. Dole's longtime ally, Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, for majority whip.
Senator Lott is a young and ambitious conservative who forged strong ties with Gingrich while in the House. He has designs on Dole's leadership job, and will be responsible for running the Senate if Dole goes out on the presidential campaign trail. Lott offers a strong bridge with House Republicans, but his alliances with Gingrich and conservative Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas could push Dole further to the right and widen the ideology gap with Democrats in Congress.
The primary theme of the new Congress is institutional reform. The incoming House leadership has undertaken the broadest changes in the committee structure since 1946. Gingrich and his team also have called for open legislative rules, and are vowing to cut government enough to empty and sell an entire office building behind Capitol Hill.
Democrats would oppose government downsizing at their peril, Mr. Mason argues, but may have a potential source of political dynamite in another proposed reform.
The Contract, which House Republicans vow to bring to a floor vote in the first 100 days, calls for congressional term limits. The bill is popular among voters, but not lawmakers.
``The Republican commitment is to have a vote,'' Mason says. ``But if the bill fails, it could have a negative boomerang effect. The necessary two-thirds majority isn't there right now.''