In Capital, Strange Bedfellows Abound as Alliances Shift

Curiouser and curiouser," said Alice, referring to Wonderland. If Lewis Carroll's heroine had been a US politician or pundit she would probably have said the same thing about modern Washington.

The Republican congressional leadership announced this week that it was going to be more cooperative with the Democrat in the White House. And the Democratic leader of the Senate said that his congressional party was going to put some distance between itself and President Clinton.

Has inside the beltway gone through the Looking Glass? Is Bill now the ally of Newt, a man his campaign demonized only weeks ago? Have Democrats cut loose from their most successful politician since FDR?

Or is it all just talk? Remember Humpty Dumpty's words to Alice: "The question is ... which is to be master - that's all."

Consider the evidence. First, the GOP: House Speaker Newt Gingrich conceded this week that he and his party had been overly aggressive after they won the 1994 congressional elections - especially in the matter of tax cuts and a balanced budget.

In the 105th Congress, the Speaker said, the GOP leadership would take even tiny tax cuts in an effort to reach agreement on a balanced budget with the president. The Republican congressional leadership, he added, will be "incrementalist" rather than confrontational.

Next, the Democrats: The Senate's minority leader, Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, talked to a group of reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Monday last. Senator Daschle staked out congressional Democratic positions that differ markedly from White House policies on issues ranging from Medicare to campaign finance reform. Daschle joked that his views were "closely coordinated" with those of President Clinton - and then joined in the assembled reporters' laughter.

All of this - if real - raises some serious political questions. Will both parties really act on the sentiments toward Clinton they expressed this week? "My best guess," says Sarah Binder, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, "is that there is a lot of positioning going on - the Democrats trying to stake out their independence, the Republicans trying to get some credit for bipartisanship."

The internal condition of both parties is responsible, in part, for their new attitudes toward the White House. In the 104th Congress, the House - not the Senate - was the focal point of GOP political activism.

Then in this month's elections, the Senate Republicans gained a seat while the House GOP's majority was diminished. The Speaker was regarded as a liability in some races and Republican candidates worked hard to distance themselves from him. Majority leader Sen. Trent Lott, not Newt, now seems the chief GOP spokesman..

Among the Democrats on Capitol Hill, the liberal leadership of the 104th Congress read an ominous message in the election returns. Even though they won more House seats, the Democrats saw a demand for ideological temperance by the voters. Thus Democratic moderates and conservatives now have more power within their caucus.

In both parties, these shifts have been painful. On the Democratic side there are also feelings of uneasiness about the president and his adoption of increasingly conservative positions.

And the White House looks more and more vulnerable to the Whitewater and other investigations by Kenneth Starr. What happens if any present or former White House staff members are indicted? Will disaffected congressional Democrats rally behind the president? "At a certain point the Democrats are going to want to cut their losses," says Michael Novak, director of political studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "The Republicans decided early on about Nixon; they weren't going to let the whole party go down on something that's hard to defend."

Thus, as a second Clinton administration and the 105th Congress get under way, it looks as if the president is being snubbed, to a certain extent, by his own party and embraced, to the same extent, by the opposition.

Curiouser and curiouser.

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