Can Washington play nice now?

Everyone wants to get to 'the people's business.' But with an eye on2000, parties may find little to agree on.

Can post-impeachment Washington come together to advance national goals such as Social Security, tax relief, medical care, and education - or must these await a new president and a new Congress in 2001?

Some observers, optimistically perhaps, predict a period of "hyper-government," with the White House and the Republican-led Congress hammering out compromise legislation that each needs to improve its image prior to the 2000 election.

Others foresee gridlock. Progress on vital issues will be blocked, they say, by political one-upmanship, stubborn ideological differences, and the bitter legacy of the impeachment scandal and trial.

"There will be some stabs at partisan comity, but the political stakes are so high that we will have a quick return to partisan fighting," predicts Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the Heritage Foundation here.

So far, the aftermath of impeachment has been less than encouraging.

Like a class letting out after a gruelling exam, Congress finished its proceedings on Friday with a sigh of relief and vows to turn to "the people's business." The newly acquitted president, too, extended an olive branch. But the hearty back-patting and calls for cooperation were dampened instantly by partisan sniping.

"We don't trust [Clinton] a lot," allowed Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, echoing a view expressed by several leading congressional Republicans. Indeed, overwhelming majorities of GOP members in the House and Senate voted to remove President Clinton from office.

For its part, the Clinton administration recently fueled animosity with aggressive talk of helping Democrats retake the House of Representatives in 2000 - a sign to even some Clinton supporters that the president might unwisely try to take revenge on those who impeached him.

"[The president] has opportunities, but he will squander them if there is any note of vengeance," warned Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York.

Apart from the immediate tensions from impeachment, experts see major longer-term obstacles to legislative success: a divided government, the scarcity of moderates, frictions between the House and Senate, and political pressures generated by the 2000 presidential election.

"All the signs point toward more gridlock," says Susan Binder, a Congress expert at the Brookings Institution here.

A key question is whether Mr. Clinton and pragmatic Republicans can persuade lawmakers from the liberal and conservative wings of their parties to back deals. That could prove tough.

HOUSE Democrats, for example, are placing priority on capturing the handful of seats they need to surmount the slim 223-to-211 Republican majority and retake the chamber. One strategy for achieving this is to refuse to compromise on legislation and then accuse Republicans - as they did in 1998 - of running a "do nothing" Congress.

"Democratic strategists say it's in the interest of the Democrats to keep raising the bar," says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. "If the Republicans want to give them everything, OK."

Moreover Clinton, indebted to liberal House Democrats for defending him during the impeachment proceedings, may not push them too hard to win deals. He may also feel inclined to promote legislation that will appeal to more liberal Democratic voters, who helped his party capture five seats in the 1998 election.

The president is more interested in his political legacy than in legislative accomplishment, and retaking the House and helping Vice President Al Gore win the presidential race would be vindication enough, say some. "All signs point to him wanting a political legacy," says Mr. Wittmann.

Among congressional Republicans, meanwhile, doubts remain over whether GOP moderates can recruit enough support from the party's conservative wing to achieve legislative successes.

House conservatives last year helped oust former Speaker Newt Gingrich after complaining about his dealmaking, and are not inclined to compromise now on core principles. This year, the impeachment trial has exacerbated tensions between House conservatives and the Senate leadership.

"The two key groups to watch are the House Democrats and then the conservative Republicans, and at what point they start digging in their heels," says Mr. Rothenberg.

Despite such obstacles, both congressional Republicans and the White House are promoting ambitious agendas. One area where consensus is likely is on increasing defense spending. A traditional GOP priority, the need to bolster the armed forces has also been embraced by Democrats recently.

Raising education spending is also a probability, although the two parties remain far apart on how to do so. While Clinton seeks more federal money for hiring teachers, Republicans want to give states educational block grants as well as waivers on federal spending rules.

For the GOP, passing a major tax-cut bill is the top priority, whether or not Clinton is willing to sign it. Clinton favors tax relief that is targeted at certain groups. Yet Democrats are insisting that any tax-cutting plan must await an agreement on the biggest question of all: how to use the budget surplus to shore up the Social Security system, which is projected to face a steep decline in assets beginning in 20 years.

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