Conciliation on Hill begins ... on Hill

Within Congress, recognition is growing that members themselves must act to end era of acrimony.

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The day after the election, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert took a phone call from the man who had wanted his job: minority leader Richard Gephardt.

It was a gracious call - a simple congratulations for GOP victory at the polls, say staff members. More notably, it was the first time the two leaders had spoken since June.

It's an understatement to say that bipartisan spirit has not defined the 106th Congress. Indeed, just days before the election, Mr. Gephardt painted his face blue and carried a spear, "Braveheart"-like, to a Democratic caucus meeting.

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But if the next Congress is to accomplish much of anything, the House leaders have only to look in the mirror to see the face of rapprochement. Indeed, in recent days lawmakers throughout Congress are increasingly realizing that they must end the acrimony themselves. No help from a big majority. No help from a powerful new president.

"It's going to take great leadership from all parties - not just this talk of bipartisanship," says former GOP Sen. Bob Dole, a veteran of reaching across the aisle.

The nation will get an early look at congressional conduct. Lawmakers return to the Hill Dec. 5 to try to finish up three unresolved spending bills that have been tied up for months.

Still, history holds out hope that a spirit of bipartisanship can infiltrate Congress - even with one of the narrowest margins ever between majority and minority parties. The most recent example comes from 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower swept into the presidency, but Republicans barely won control of the Senate and had only an eight-seat margin in the House.

The outgoing Speaker, Sam Rayburn (D) of Texas could have exploited this narrow margin to tie up Congress and the Eisenhower administration. He didn't.

"As to the opposition party that I am supposed to lead, it is not going to be opposition for opposition's sake alone," Rayburn wrote to a friend the night before giving up the Speakership he'd held through the war years. "Any mule can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one."

Instead, he worked closely with the new Republican Speaker - and even let him keep the big Speaker's office after Democrats took back the House in 1954.

Experts disagree over why Rayburn took this tack. Some note that the times were dangerous, and he didn't want to risk giving an opening to communist dictators at the height of the cold war. Others say he and protege Lyndon Johnson in the Senate believed congressional leaders should work with the president.

"The great leaders like Rayburn set parameters on what they could agree on, and didn't fight about what they didn't. They understood the other guy's point of view. They kept their word. They let the other guy keep his dignity," says Alvin Felzenberg, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

But today's lawmakers no longer face an all-consuming foe. And in recent years, the culture of Congress has soured.

When the bitterness began

Some say the sharp partisanship started back in 1985, when the Democrat-controlled House refused to seat the Republican winner of a close House race in Indiana. Instead, they set up a task force to investigate the race, which concluded that the Democrat had won by four votes. Republicans cried foul, and the battle raged on until May, when GOP lawmakers stalked out of the House wearing "Thou Shalt Not Steal" buttons.

For the new Republican class, including future majority leader Dick Armey and majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas, the incident was a short course in political hardball they would not forget.

Nor would Democrats forget the unusually personal assault that GOP backbencher Newt Gingrich launched on Speaker Jim Wright (D) in December 1987. In an escalating tit for tat, they booted President Bush's nominee for Defense secretary, John Tower, in a partisan showdown. When finally forced to give up the gavel in 1989, Mr. Wright called on both political parties to "bring this period of mindless cannibalism to an end."

Then, there was the impeachment of President Clinton - and new calls to end what Gephardt called "the politics of personal destruction."

The hardball legacy will be tough to overcome. On the eve of the elections, lawmakers were calling the atmosphere in Congress "poisonous."

The struggle for consensus could be most acute in the Senate, where a 50-50 split is possible. If such a split materializes, Democrats say they will seek some form of powersharing with Republicans, including equal appointments on committees and equal staff resources.

Moderates on both sides of the aisle are already exploring common ground for legislating early in the new session. They're calling on whoever wins the presidency to focus on a program that can win bipartisan support.

"We're talking about finding a few pieces of legislation we can agree on - almost like the confidence-building measures included in treaties to end a war," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont. These could include a patients' bill of rights, a prescription-drug benefit, and campaign-finance reform.

More time for socializing

But beyond legislative programs, one of the biggest obstacles to bipartisanship will be finding ways for members to get to know each other. With three-day work weeks, constant travel back to districts, and evenings locked into fundraising, the opportunities for contact across party lines are limited.

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean (R) faced a hostile environment after winning the closest election in state history in 1981. At first, a solidly Democratic legislature opposed his every move. "It took continually ... turning the other cheek, and making alliances wherever you can," says Mr. Kean, now president of Drew University in Madison, N.J.

Kean won a second term with the largest margin in state history.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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