Dealmakers Get Upper Hand in D.C. - for Now

Pragmatism defines a new political center, where overriding goal is to get things done. BY: Lawrence J. Goodrich, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A period of pragmatism is taking hold on Capitol Hill in which the White House is increasingly teaming up with Republicans to create a new political center in Washington.

The pattern is being driven by common interests on some issues, but also by the political realization that the public is impatient with the usual Washington squabbling. The new mantra now seems to be: performance counts.

The growing White House-GOP cooperation, however, is also creating some odd coalitions. Bipartisan groups are forming and re-forming to try to defeat legislation backed by the president and the Hill leadership. Democratic leaders are sometimes deserting the White House, and a few powerful Republicans are abandoning their caucus.

As lawmakers recess for a week, they will have an opportunity to learn what voters back home think of this unusual period, in which neither party's agenda seems to be dominant but policy is often driven by the perceived need to get things done.

"There is a definite pattern developing," says Will Marshall of the New Democrat Progressive Policy Institute. "Center-out coalitions are building, coalitions that isolate extremists."

Recent events show the change in the tenor of the nation's capital. A few weeks ago, President Clinton and Congress were at a standoff on a host of issues.

Budget talks at the staff level were going nowhere. The clock was ticking on a chemical-weapons treaty that was bottled up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Labor Secretary-designate Alexis Herman's nomination was held hostage to a presidential order Republicans didn't like.

Since the Easter recess, all those issues have been resolved. "There's been a spirit of cooperation, a spirit that we all predicted eventually would take hold," says a House Republican aide. "But with some of the distractions earlier in the year, it was difficult to see."

The White House's actions this week in assisting the GOP leadership to beat back "show-stopper" amendments also illustrate the current atmosphere. In the House, a bipartisan coalition tried to insert more money into the budget resolution for highways and bridges. The motion failed by a mere two votes after Speaker Newt Gingrich, House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich of Ohio, and White House budget director Franklin Raines intervened.

Then in the Senate, conservative Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and liberal Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts waged a bitter fight to insert additional child health spending. After intense lobbying by the White House and Senate majority leader Tent Lott, the attempt went down by a 55-to-45 vote. Seven Republicans voted for the additional spending and taxation., while seven Democrats voted no.

SOME say the cooperation bodes well for the future. "I think the spirit of working together ... is kind of infectious and is tending to reflect on other matters," says House majority leader Dick Armey.

Observers credit several factors for creating the new closeness between leaders who a little more than a year ago were at each other's throats:

* The November elections, in which Democrats failed to take back Congress and Republicans again lost the White House. Politicians all over Washington interpret the results as meaning the American people want the two sides to stop fighting and work things out.

"This [budget deal] is a move in a kinder, gentler direction, and I think the public is delighted to have it take place," says Bill Frenzel, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington who is a former congressman from Minnesota.

* The GOP's determination not to be maneuvered into fiascoes like the government shutdowns of 1995-96 or votes that would give Democrats a propaganda advantage. While Republicans had to give the president increased spending and priority for his tax cuts, "What they've gained is political peace," Mr. Frenzel says. "They looked very contentious in the 104th Congress. If they can parlay that [pragmatism] into a consolidation of their control of Congress in the 1998 elections, it will be a pearl of very great price."

* House Republicans, who spent 40 years in the minority, are getting better at governing. Speaker Gingrich and other leaders have accepted that as long as a Democrat is in the White House, they will have to compromise.

But the potential for partisan acrimony lies just below the surface. The White House still faces damaging congressional investigations of campaign-finance improprieties, which Democrats say ignore Republican misdeeds. At press time, the president still threatened to veto a disaster-relief bill because of a GOP provision that would prevent a government shutdown if a final budget is not enacted. And while the budget deal looks set to pass the Senate (the House passed it early Wednesday), it still must navigate serious rapids in committees. Liberals and conservatives remain unhappy at what they see as betrayals of their ideals.

"From a standpoint of peace and stability [the deal] is a step forward, but I don't think we can tell whether [it will change] the way Congress and president deal with one another and the way Congress deals with itself," Frenzel says.

"It's going to last because it has to," Mr. Marshall says. "Both political parties are under tremendous pressure to perform."

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