The Season of Compromise

Expect less conflict in Congress as Dole, Clinton enter election mode

IT'S an unprecedented clash of political titans: The incumbent president and the Senate majority leader will battle each other for the keys to the Oval Office.

But election day is still months away. In the meantime, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole have lots of unfinished Washington business to attend to. Thus the US legislative process now looks set to become a primary battleground. Every amendment, every vote could reflect electoral positioning.

That doesn't necessarily mean more gridlock. It could, in fact, mean the opposite.

Ironically, a Clinton-Dole matchup may shift the emphasis on Capitol Hill from conflict to compromise. Consider the indicators: Both candidates have a penchant for consensus. Both parties, as institutions, are vulnerable to charges that they haven't kept their promises - the GOP Congress has passed little into law, while President Clinton has floundered on such favorite issues as welfare reform. If Senator Dole is prove his claim that he is "a doer, not a talker," and Clinton is to counter criticism that he is "a talker, not a doer," both need to turn bills into laws. For that, they need each other.

"What we've seen is what we'll get," says Charles Jones, a presidential scholar at the University of Wisconsin. "Dole will work hard to produce legislation he believes fits the Republican pitch. Bill Clinton will sense where he agrees, then clearly outline where he differs. But if either side games too much - if Dole produces legislation that Clinton vetoes - it will be dangerous for both."

Not that politics will be the sole factor pushing legislation into law between now and November.

Timing will be an issue, as well. After months of hard work, some legislative efforts - such as the farm bill - are coincidentally now coming close to fruition.

And substance will surely play a part in Washington's upcoming work. Though it's easy to see everything that happens in Washington as an adjunct to a large political game, much legislation - consider the farm bill, again - reflects a real belief on the part of its proponents that its changes will be good for the nation.

Still, the political dynamic will be interesting. The men who will be political foes are also men who already hold arguably the two most powerful jobs in Washington - and who will face each other across negotiating tables numerous times in upcoming weeks.

Dole already has begun calling Clinton "Veto Bill," the only obstacle to a balanced budget, welfare reform, and tax breaks for families. But as Clinton showed during the budget negotiations, he was able to co-opt the Republican goal of balancing the budget in seven years while turning the public against the GOP on issues such as Medicare, education, and the environment.

The president may follow the same strategy again on education. He traveled yesterday to New York, where the nation's governors were meeting to discuss ways to draw the private sector into education. At the last such summit, six years ago, Governor Clinton was a primary author of a plan to enact national standards called Goals 2000. President Bush championed the program, but it has since fallen out of favor with Republicans, who now control a majority of statehouses across the country.

The challenge, particularly for the Republicans, lies in drafting legislation that Clinton will sign but which the public will give them credit for. Dole runs the risk of failing to distinguish himself from Clinton. Elections, after all, focus more light on the incumbent. On the other hand, Clinton needs to wield the veto pen carefully, or Dole's nickname for him could stick.

Not all legislation is that tricky. Congress is close to offering the president a line-item veto and health-care reforms that allow employees to carrying their health insurance from one job to another. Both sides recognize passing these bills is in their own interests. The line-item veto, long a favorite GOP cause, was part of the Contract With America. Despite all the ballyhoo of the first 100 days in the House last year, very little of that 10-point plan has been signed into law. Clinton, as a former governor, meanwhile, is eager to have it.

Health-care reform, despite the administration's disastrous efforts in 1993, remains a potent issue for voters. Sponsored by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum ( R ) of Kansas and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, the bill lets both sides take credit.

Other issues are more complicated. Consider tax cuts. Republicans included a hefty package of tax cuts to families and investors in their budget plan, which Clinton vetoed. The president, alternatively, has offered a more modest set of tax breaks reflecting specific Democratic priorities such as education.

Dole wants tax cuts to assuage concerns among suspicious fiscal conservatives wary of his record. In 1982, a year after President Reagan's landmark tax cut, Dole engineered a sweeping tax hike to address a swelling deficit. Many Republicans haven't forgotten. Clinton, meanwhile, faces criticism over his 1993 fiscal stimulus package that raised taxes on some brackets.

If the Republicans aren't able to force Clinton to sign a package of tax cuts reflecting their priorities, Dole has indicated he will make the issue a centerpiece of his campaign. "Excessive taxation, excessive government intrusion in peoples' lives, is the overarching theme of this election," says Steve Merksamer, a senior Dole adviser.

Given the stakes for both sides, the climate is conducive to the passage of tax cuts and welfare reform.

Still, there are some issues both sides will try to draw confrontation over, and others the parties will raise simply to shore up their bases. Dole plans to schedule new debates on term limits and a balanced-budget amendment, even though his support for the former is questionable, in an attempt to embarrass Democrats. Clinton likely will veto a product-liability reform bill, in part to assuage Ralph Nadar, the consumer advocate who is running for president under the Green Party.

Most of the highly confrontational issues, however, aren't likely to emerge. Instead, each side will look for ways to gain an edge on pieces of legislation that have reasonable prospects for passage.

"Both sides are reading polls," says Mickey Edwards, a former GOP congressman now teaching at Harvard. "There will be head-butting over certain issues, with everyone doing just enough to get some of the credit."

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