WASHINGTON — Despite the battle over Newt Gingrich's ethics and a tough fall campaign that left bruised feelings on both sides, Congress may have one of its most productive sessions in years in 1997 as it deals with big issues from crime to tax cuts.
A number of forces may push Democrats and Republicans past the partisan wrangling that's dominated the first days of the 105th Congress. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, chastened by a reprimand from his peers, may well act like less of a revolutionary, for one thing. Senate majority leader Trent Lott may want to prove that he's as effective as predecessor Bob Dole.
Meanwhile, President Clinton continues to move toward GOP positions on such agenda items as Medicare and a plan for a balanced budget. (Party agendas, Page 18.)
"I don't think they'll put this [Gingrich battle] behind them but that doesn't necessarily mean they won't get business done," says David Rohde of Michigan State University in East Lansing. "The question is, how much and with how much pain and suffering?"
Why Feuding May Fade As Congress Starts Work
Liberal stalwart Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts says that only during the Civil War era were members of Congress unable to work together. "We're very professional people. We get things done. You're used to working with people you disagree with or maybe intensely dislike."
Rep. J.C. Watts (R) of Oklahoma, the only black in the GOP caucus, agrees. "I think there are people on both sides, Republicans and Democrats, who want to move forward with a balanced budget, fixing Medicare, and tax breaks for working families," he says. "I think that's the case with 90 percent of this body."
In the Senate, which was spared the rancor of the battle over Mr. Gingrich, both Mr. Lott of Mississippi and minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota expressed the hope that the two parties could work together to pass legislation that the president will sign.
"It's very important for us to trust each other with regard to the rhetoric," Senator Daschle said Tuesday.
Several forces appear to be converging in favor of progress. "The president has adopted a good bit of the Republican agenda," says Charles Jones of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "There's also the narrower margin of the Republicans in the House, and the fact that Newt Gingrich has now got to be a more typical House leader, a nonrevolutionary."
And in the Senate, Lott may want to do well in his first full term as majority leader. "He wants to show that he can get things done, that he can do it as well as [former Sen.] Bob Dole did it," says Professor Jones.
Other factors that could ease strains between the GOP Congress and the Democratic president: Mr. Clinton is not running for reelection. He has reached out to Republicans, in public statements and by appointing former Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine as defense secretary.
A strong economy helps, too. An increase in people working instead of drawing public aid cuts welfare and Medicaid costs, lowering projected deficits and giving the two sides more maneuvering room on the budget.
The decentralization of power in the House is also a factor, whether the result of Gingrich's problems or of a deliberate Republican-caucus plan to work more as a team. Increased power for committee chairmen "will affect in some degree ability to strike bargains," Professor Rohde says. "It will have the most effect during initial committee consideration of bills - the ability of Democrats and Republicans on committees to strike bargains independent of their leaderships."
"Diffusion rather than centralization of that power and responsibility is probably a good thing," Jones says.
Gingrich's power, especially during the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, was unparalleled since the beginning of this century. "It's not surprising that the next iteration should be less than that," Rohde says. "But we're a long way from the era of the committee barons of the 1960s."
"What's happening is more of a normalization of role of the Speaker," Jones says.
Progress may also result from some Democrats' acceptance that the center of political discussion has shifted rightward. But serious differences of approach remain.
"I've had general discussions with the president," Lott said Tuesday as he described the Republicans' top-priority Senate bills (see list, above). "We have an easy relationship. We'll take whatever he proposes and say, well ... we'll work from there.... But we have our own agenda, and we're going forward with it."
Plenty of potential exists for renewed partisan bickering. If Gingrich pays his $300,000 financial penalty out of campaign, instead of personal, funds, Democrats could revolt. And difficult investigations of Democratic Party fund-raising irregularities lie ahead.
So all sides remain cautious. "It's easy for us to give the speeches," Daschle says. "It's much harder for us to ensure that it actually occurs."
Each party's top Senate bills
Balanced Budget. Constitutional amendment.
Education. Provide school vouchers, education investment accounts. Make interest on student loans tax deductible.
Tax Relief. $500-per-child tax credit. Raise spouse's limit on IRAs from $250 to $2,000. Cut capital-gains tax 50 percent on earnings from assets held more than three years.
Crime. Fight illegal drugs, terrorism, child pornography. End "abuse" of prison system by felons and judges.
Workplace. Give workers the option of flex-time or comp-time instead of overtime pay.
Product Liability. "Reform" the civil justice system for product-liability cases. Vetoed by President Clinton in last Congress.
Abortion. Ban controversial third-term abortion procedure. Vetoed by the president last year.
Missile Defense. Build a system to protect the nation against rogue missile attack.
Superfund. Extend the program, but end litigation over liability that has slowed site cleanup.
Campaign Finance Reform. Set voluntary spending limits; restrict soft money; ban fund-raising by foreign nationals.
Education. Create tax credits for first two years of college. Make student-loan interest deductible. Promote literacy by the third grade.
Children's Health. Provide eligible families a tax credit on health-insurance premiums. Aid lower-income women needing prenatal care.
Retirement. Expand IRAs. Create a savings plan for workers without pension coverage. Make retirement savings more portable.
Crime. Put 25,000 more police officers on the street. Extend the Violence Against Women Act. Increase federal sentences for juveniles.
Beef Industry. Increase livestock prices and ensure fair trade for beef overseas.
Job Training. Consolidate several federal job-training programs into one system and issue $3,000 vouchers directly to workers.
Environment. Create a program to clean up and develop sites not covered by Superfund.