Hatfields and McCoys in Washington

Ethics problems, long-standing grudges trigger new round of partisan feuding on Hill

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The current controversy over Speaker Newt Gingrich's admissions that he lied to the House ethics committee, added to the investigations of the Clintons' financial past, have created a climate of political nastiness not felt since last year's budget debacle.

Today's House vote on Mr. Gingrich's fate, determining whether he will continue to serve as Speaker, won't do much to warm partisan relations. Democrats harbor a long-standing grudge against the Georgia Republican, dating from the Reagan administration and the Iran-contra affair - one that isn't likely to fade soon, no matter what the outcome of the vote for Speaker.

So what about the much-heralded spirit of cooperation that marked the latter half of Campaign '96? It may well be that the bipartisan honeymoon is over, even before the 105th Congress takes up a single agenda item this week.

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"Newt is the most controversial figure in the House of Representatives," says Thomas Mann, who directs governmental studies at Washington's Brookings Institution. "He has a long history. There are bitter feelings on both sides, and so it is inevitable that there would be a breakdown of civility when his future is being debated."

The current rancor has its roots in the mid-1980s. The Iran-contra affair, in particular, inspired sharp Democratic attacks on the Reagan administration and, in retaliation, the GOP minority in the House raised Cain about the ethics problems of former Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas. Gingrich led the charges against Mr. Wright before the House ethics committee, which ultimately concluded that there were grounds for believing the Speaker had broken House rules 69 times. On May 31, 1989, Wright resigned his leadership post.

For that and for later GOP victories, including the House and Senate takeovers, Democrats feel their dislike of Gingrich is justified. Some Republicans' loathing of President Clinton, meanwhile, is just as personal. Investigations into Mr. and Mrs. Clinton's alleged campaign-funding and other financial (and, in his case, personal) misdeeds are fuel for partisan rhetoric. But the grudges that some bear against the Clintons go beyond the political.

"To me, it's a matter of lifestyle, of their smugness," says a GOP House member who asked not to be identified. "I think they're isolated from the rest of Washington. They have contempt for us."

This general climate of ill will can be more of a threat to government than the personalities and political issues of the day. Congress and the president are elected to debate, enact, and enforce laws. But what Congress is sent here to do and what it is doing now is the difference between debate and quarrel. A Washington Post editorial quoted GOP Rep. Larry Combest of Texas lamenting the lost camaraderie of the 1970s. He remembers a time when his former boss, conservative Sen. John Tower of Texas, clashed in debate with liberal Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota. "They would walk off the floor arm in arm because they were friends," Mr. Combest added sadly. "That's the way it ought to be. But it's not the way it is here."

Rep. David Skaggs (D) of Colorado believes part of the problem is a huge turnover in House membership. "Many of the new members are unacquainted with the rules," he says. "They launch personal attacks if they have no other basis for argument with guys on the other side."

In recognition that Washington politics have sunk to a new partisan low, Mr. Skaggs and Rep. Ray LaHood (R) of Illinois organized a bipartisan retreat for House members in March. Members' families are also invited to Hershey, Pa., gathering. Because many lawmakers leave spouses and children at home in their districts, "members don't spend off-duty time at each other's houses, as they used to. Friendships don't develop as they used to," Skaggs says.

"The signal coming from the public is clearly, 'We want you guys to roll up your sleeves and get the work done,' " says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

That, plus an increasing awareness of the importance of civility, could redeem a congressional season that is off to a spiteful start.

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