Prospects for a more bipartisan Capitol

High on George W. Bush's list of campaign promises sits a pledge to end the "finger-pointing and name-calling and bitterness" in Washington. Al Gore, in his standard stump speech, makes no such claim. The imagery he paints is more battle-oriented than conciliatory. "I'll fight for you," he often says.

Perhaps after 24 years here as a legislator and vice president, he knows how hard it would be to produce a Washington-style harmonic convergence - especially so soon after impeachment poisoned the atmosphere.

But one thing is clear: Whoever wins the presidency next Tuesday will face a Congress that has just spent the past two years - and much of the 1990s - locked in partisan conflict. And no matter which party wins the majority in the House of Representatives, a race still too close to call, the margin of control will remain close. The Senate is likely to remain GOP.

So, with just four days to go until election day, Washington is looking at four possible power scenarios for at least the next two years. On its face, the likeliest formula for harmony would be a Republican sweep.

But regardless of who wins the House, retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York observes that a Bush administration "could create a different relationship with the legislature."

Still, Senator Moynihan continues, "let's not imagine there was this pastoral age when everyone in Congress was thoughtful, agreeable, and wore togas. I remember the civil rights battle from 1962 to '64, and that was bitter."

Even if the Republicans do sweep, Bush would still have his work cut out for him. Fellow Texans - Tom Delay and Dick Armey - wield enormous power in the House as the No. 2 and No. 3 GOP leaders, but they are not close to Bush.

The Texas governor, in fact, has held them and the rest of the congressional Republican caucus at arm's length throughout the campaign to maintain his image as an outsider and to steer clear of their own negative image.

Bush is counting on his own personal skills - including the "likability" factor that could help put him over the top on Tuesday - and a record of working both sides of the aisle in Austin to make things happen in Washington.

But his learning curve here would be steep, analysts say. Texas Democrats are, on average, more conservative than the wide range of Democrats from around the country he'd be dealing with in Washington.

But even if Democrats win control of the House with a small majority, former national Republican chairman Haley Barbour predicts Bush will be able to forge "a working majority on most everything."

"There are dozens, say 50 to 75 Democrats, who will support Bush on many issues," Mr. Barbour told a Monitor breakfast yesterday, listing trade and Social Security as areas of agreement. Those most likely to disagree with Bush would be Midwestern pro-labor Democrats, he says.

One possible risk for a President Bush would be that conservative Republicans - antsy after eight years in the wilderness with President Clinton - will push extra hard to enact their agenda on issues such as limiting abortion and expanding school prayer. And by promising consensus, Bush is inviting onslaughts from all factions, from both sides of the aisle.

A president Gore, on the other hand, would likely come to the Oval Office more firmly attached to his positions, especially those closest to his heart, such as the environment and the communications revolution.

"Gore is more consistent in his views, and thus finds compromise more difficult," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University.

On the other hand, "he's smart enough to understand the problem of partisanship - and that he would have to work across party lines." In fact, given the history of partisanship and a close GOP majority, "He would have to pursue a more bipartisan agenda than he and Clinton did in the past."

On Capitol Hill, legislators are heading into the elections fresh from a two-year session that accomplished little and was marked from beginning to end by gridlock. On Tuesday, sensing that Bush had the momentum to win the presidency, GOP Senate leaders gave up trying to strike a deal on the budget with Clinton and scheduled a lame-duck session for Nov. 14. The government will continue to run, in the meantime, under temporary spending bills. House Republican leaders decided to keep meeting through today, to avoid charges that they were leaving town without getting their work done.

But already, the 106th Congress has set forth a challenge for the 107th - and for the next president. While Gore and Bush have campaigned on their plans for what to do with the projected surplus, Congress has been busy spending it.

Fiscal discipline has gone out the window; Congress has gone over the spending cap set in 1997 by $100 billion, an amount seen as unimaginable even a few months ago. Both parties are to blame, members from both sides agree, but they are still trying to score political points on each other going into Tuesday's vote.

So, come January, there's one major challenge the new president will have to address: how to rein in congressional spending. "If it's a GOP sweep," says Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the Hudson Institute, "they'll be more restrained."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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