Congress convenes at crossroads

With 50-50 Senate and narrowly split House, options are stark: bipartisanship or tactical war for 2002 elections.

The new Congress that convenes today - the most evenly divided in US history - now seems likely to follow one of two courses:

Either it will lead to a period of bipartisan cooperation not seen in the nation's capital for several decades, or it will devolve into a new era of collision in American politics.

Centrists in both parties, hoping the cooperative impulse prevails, are already forming new partnerships across party lines around issues like education and health care. But if their initiatives fail, lawmakers may be headed for two years of stalemate - in essence, the beginning of Campaign 2002.

The tenor set by this Congress may be more important than usual. Some issues that have been dormant for several years - such as the health of the economy - are suddenly resurfacing and may require quick action. At the same time, the American public is as delicately divided along party lines as the major institutions of government, suggesting that voters will be closely watching the direction and tone that Washington sets. The first tests of the ability of the new Congress to work across party lines will come early. A key indicator will be how the Congress handles two tasks that are usually routine - staffing on the Hill and confirming presidential Cabinet appointments.

With the Senate split 50-50, the task of setting up committees and staff is no longer straightforward. Democrats say there is no majority party, and committee ratios and staff assignments should reflect that reality. If both sides do not come to an agreement, organization of the Senate could be the object of a filibuster, delaying the start of the new Congress.

Until the inauguration of a new president on Jan. 20, the vice president who breaks ties in the Senate is still Al Gore. That leaves Democrats in charge for 17 days. Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota says that, as majority leader, he will treat Republicans as Democrats expect to be treated during the rest of the session.

Some GOP chairman are working out power-sharing arrangements with ranking Democrats on committees such as Commerce, Appropriations, and Government Affairs. And the outgoing Congress added $10 million to the budget that could cover the costs of bringing Democrats up to parity on committee staffs.

"For Republicans, those 17 days are a reminder of how fragile the Republican majority is in the Senate," says Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst with the Washington-based Hudson Institute.

The business of Cabinet nominations could be more challenging. Already, Democrats are signaling that the confirmation of former Sen. John Ashcroft (R) of Missouri as attorney general could be contested in the Senate, in part because of his antiabortion views. Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York, for one, has said he has "real reservations" about the nomination.

In addition, many African-American groups, concerned about Senator Ashcroft's views on race, are calling on Democrats to block the nomination. "It's an intentionally divisive nomination, and it is of great concern to us," says Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum.

In the past, such contested nominations were relatively rare. "The whole history of presidential nominations, especially Cabinet nominations, has been to give the benefit of the doubt to the president," says Senate Historian Richard Baker.

But he adds that contested nominations can also figure into party strategies. For example, the Senate's 1959 rejection of President Eisenhower's nominee for Commerce Department was "the first shot in a war that led up to the 1960 presidential election," he says. "The Eisenhower administration got almost nothing accomplished in its last two years in office."

A contested nomination early in the new Congress could sour prospects for bipartisan cooperation and set the agenda toward Campaign 2002.

"The Ashcroft nomination has angered a lot of Democrats," says Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. "It doesn't look like there have been any breakthroughs on bipartisanship on the new Cabinet. This is not a good sign for moderation and a bipartisan spirit."

Nonetheless, centrists in both parties say they have a good chance to take the initiative early in the new session on issues such as education and healthcare.

"We have reached a remarkable consensus on a variety of issues, particularly early education and the need to get everyone reading by the third grade," said Rep. Michael Castle (R) of Delaware.

An early reading initiative is likely to be the first proposal out of the White House to the new Congress. Centrists also note the possibility of reviving proposals to overhaul the Medicare system.

Some move to upgrade the federal election system could also muster early bipartisan support. Since the presidential election, five bills have already been introduced, ranging from $325 million in grants to states and localities to improve their voting systems to setting up an election commission to study the process.

One potentially divisive issue is campaign-finance reform. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona says he plans to offer a proposal that has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. But the measure is still opposed by the GOP leadership.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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