Historic GOP Sweep of Congress Challenges Clinton, Republicans to Seek Bipartisanship
Tax-cut, budget pose early tests
WASHINGTON — ELECTION '94, a lightning bolt of voter anger and frustration, has turned the politics of Congress upside-down.
Gone from the House Speaker's post will be Rep. Tom Foley (D) of Washington. In his place, the liberals' nemesis, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. Gone is Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine. Taking over, Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas.
The voters' rush toward conservatives, which could see Sen. Jesse Helms installed as the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, signals the greatest shift in congressional power since Dwight Eisenhower occupied the White House 40 years ago.
The new Republican Congress and the Democratic President Clinton face a fundamental choice. They can work together to find common ground in their competing visions for America; or they can spend the second half of Mr. Clinton's term seeking partisan advantage.
Both sides are pledging cooperation - for now. But some analysts question how long that will last. ``The '96 presidential race begins tomorrow,'' says one Democratic insider, implying instant partisan rancor.
Prof. James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at The American University, disagrees that partisanship will dominate immediately.
Congress will have to produce a budget, he points out. And there are other areas where the two parties can work together, such as welfare reform, lobbying reform, and international trade.
But Clinton ``must change his approach to dealing with Congress and move toward the center,'' says Professor Thurber. During the last Congress, the Democrats had such a large majority (256 to 178, plus one independent) that they often passed bills with little or no Republican support.
That will no longer work, as staunch conservatives move into positions of enormous power. In the Senate, for example, Senator Helms, a sharp critic of Democratic policy, will probably replace Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island as head of the Foreign Relations Committee.
While partisan bickering may escalate, there are areas, such as trade, where majority Republicans could actually smooth the way for the Clinton White House.
It was mostly Republican votes in the old Congress, for example, that passed Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Mr. Gingrich helped Clinton in that fight, while most Democrats opposed the president.
Similarly, Republicans could help Clinton in the new Congress push through the GATT agreement, which would expand trade worldwide, but which has drawn Democratic fire.
Generally, however, the outlook is problematic. Before the election, House Republicans pledged to support a ``Contract With America,'' a list of 10 bills they vowed to consider during the first 100 days of the 104th Congress. The contract contains items that are anathema to the Clinton White House, including term limits and the balanced-budget amendment.
In the case of the balanced-budget amendment, Clinton's signature isn't even necessary for enactment.
Some Republican strategists see the balanced-budget amendment emerging as an early test in the next Congress. A version of it is supported by both conservative congressional Democrats and by some liberal Democrats. The question is whether a compromise can be reached.
The same holds for welfare reform. In a broad sense, Clinton and the GOP agree on a need to take able-bodied people off welfare after two years and move them into jobs. But an emboldened Republican Party could seek to push its proposal to the right - for example, by limiting or eliminating the jobs program which Clinton supports.
On health-care reform, both the Clinton administration and Republican leaders like Senator Dole have pledged renewed efforts to change at least the insurance system.
On the budget deficit, the campaign itself may have restricted both parties' abilities to make serious moves toward deficit reduction. Candidates sought to one-up each other in declaring how they would not cut entitlements (like Social Security) or raise taxes. In addition, Republicans have been reminding Clinton that he promised to cut middle-class taxes.
``A middle-class tax cut is on both the [GOP] House and Senate [agendas], and it would be a natural part of the budget process,'' says David Mason, a Congress-watcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The irony for the Republicans is that by taking over Congress and forcing Clinton to the right, they could be helping his reelection chances, especially if Congress sends him legislation he's willing to sign.
On the negative side for Clinton and the White House, the new Republican majority in Congress will inherit the ability to investigate alleged executive branch misdeeds and issue subpoenas. Congressman Gingrich has promised extensive investigations, including on Whitewater.
Another irony for Republicans and their supporters is that, at a time when the public is yearning for change on Capitol Hill - witness the strength of the term-limits movement - many familiar faces will occupy leadership posts and committee chairmanships, including Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York, a 15-year Senate veteran, Senator Thurmond, who has served since 1954, and Gingrich, a congressman since 1978.
All these men would have to leave Congress if a 12-year term limit, the maximum length of service proposed in the Contract with America, were somehow retroactively imposed.
But that won't happen. One debate brewing within Republican ranks, says Mr. Mason of the Heritage Foundation, is whether to do unto House Democrats as they did unto Republicans in keeping Republican legislation bottled up in the Rules Committee. Some argue that, after all these years in the wilderness, the Republicans shouldn't forgo their chance to play payback. Mason predicts they'll be ``better than Democrats but won't give up the privilege of majority.''