Capitol Hill: Tale of 2 Houses
WASHINGTON — THE site of the sinking of the federal pay raise could also hold hidden shoals for President Bush's new programs. What sank the raise was immense pressure from an outraged public. Fittingly, the drama was played out in the House, a body known to be much more strident and fractious than the Senate. ``The level of partisanship in the House'' is very high, Senate minority whip Alan Simpson says.
The Senate turned down the raise and handed the hot potato on to the House. There the rejection process was nurtured amid growing acrimony and harsh criticism of Speaker Jim Wright from a handful of Republicans.
``There's no question there's a very different atmosphere in the two houses,'' political scientist Norman Ornstein says.
``The Senate is more of a men's club,'' adds a veteran Washington analyst who requested anonymity. ``And the House is a little bit like a bowling league, in terms of temperament.''
``We may well find George Bush and his priorities getting caught between the emotions of the Democrats and Republicans in the House,'' Mr. Ornstein says.
The pay-raise affair's tarnishing of Speaker Wright's already battered image could contribute to greater acrimony. One House Republican says the Speaker's stature has been eroded, ``especially among members of his own party.''
Some political observers say Mr. Wright's problems are part of the reason for the acrimony and fractiousness in the House. The Speaker is ``vulnerable,'' says a longtime observer of the inner workings of Capitol Hill.
But House Republicans share the blame. They ``have been in the minority for so long, 35 years now, that they are utterly frustrated. This has been building for a long time,'' says John Chubb, a senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution.
By contrast the Senate has changed political hands more frequently.
Many Republicans blame House Democrats, especially Wright, for the partisanship. Mr. Chubb sees GOP animosity toward the Speaker, who they feel has not been treating them as he should. But the biggest problem, Senator Simpson says, is with House Democratic aides: ``They have become hardened, cynical - and tenured.''
Long before the pay-raise flap, the differences between Senate and House were clear. The Senate is small, 100 members, and has informal rules. The House is large, 435 members, and has more formal rules. Senators are elected statewide, House members from districts, many of which, Chubb says, have clear and partisan interests.
Then there is the House Budget Committee. James Thurber, who studies budget issues, says the House panel is ``much more ideological and partisan'' than its equal in the Senate.
That, Dr. Thurber says, contributes to the House partisanship. In the last four years ``about 65 percent of the roll-call votes'' in the House and Senate were on budget issues. ``The number of budget-related votes in both chambers has escalated during the past quarter-century,'' says Thurber, a professor of government at American University who directs the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies there.
Budget issues still dominate. And members of Congress must now overcome the fallout left by the pay fiasco. ``I don't think anyone, either Republican or Democrat, has come out of this looking either statesmanlike or prudent,'' says Rep. Marge Roukema (R) of New Jersey.