A Congress Without Aisles

Atmospherically speaking, the mood in Washington during these pre-inaugural days remains mostly upbeat. A sense of bipartisan promise floats in the air.

Voters, after all, ordered up a mandate for the two parties to work together by splitting the vote for president and electing a House and Senate almost evenly divided. Republicans are technically in control, but they know they can't close a deal without a hand across the aisle.

To be sure, pressures to play to the cameras or special interests or the next election still remain. A cooperative spirit might not last the first hearing on a cabinet nominee.

But Americans want results, not wrestling matches. That takes bipartisanship, or at least "we agree to disagree and still get something meaningful done."

Both parties recognize the public's desire for action based on consensus, or what Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer calls "reasoned dialogue." He notes one of Washington's problems is that too many groups "are always warming up for the next battle, and therefore Washington is always in the middle of a battle." But Capitol Hill doesn't need full-time gladiators.

The first real bipartisanship came in a decision last week by Senate Republicans to evenly share committee seats with Democrats, reflecting the Senate's 50-50 split in membership. This, not uncoincidentally, also strips some power from Senate GOP leaders and gives it to committee chairs. (In the House, meanwhile, the Speaker and the minority leader are once again on speaking terms.)

As for the substance of issues rather than just process, cooperation is brewing between the "moderate" factions of each party, the New Democrats and the Mainstreet Republican Partnership. The two want to build a coalition that can find common ground on divisive issues or, at the least, block "vindictive" legislation.

They hope for early passage of some piece of legislation that will loop the new president into this bipartisanship. That could easily be an education bill which, if it passes, must leave tuition vouchers for states to decide.

Such a move could create goodwill for passage of some mix of tax cuts. Mr. Bush can't afford an early loss by going for broke with his large tax cut, the way Bill Clinton lost on his massive healthcare reform package. He'll need to include some Democratic tax measures.

That's the kind of gesture voters expect. They have lit a torch under lawmakers not to be obstructionist. The next few weeks will set the tone for the next two years.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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