New Coalitions Stir Washington Politics

'Third force' may bust logjams in Congress

A new force is moving through American politics.

Underneath Washington's partisan shouting is a current of convergence, with many Republicans and Democrats coming to similar conclusions about what the federal government must do to improve education, fix Medicare, and tackle social problems without either side abandoning its core beliefs.

The result is the emergence of a new network of coalitions - a so-called "third force" - that may lead to progress on some of Washington's most intractable problems. That, at least, is the view of a number of members of Congress and at least two important Washington think tanks - the conservative Heritage Foundation and the Democratic-leaning Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

"This is not a question of moving to the 'mushy middle' or splitting differences," says Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation. "It's an agreement on fundamental themes beyond the rhetoric of the left and the right."

"We're talking about reinvigoration of the debate between the parties," says Will Marshall of the PPI, the policy wing of the Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate organization founded by, among others, then-Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

A 'force' to be reckoned with

This convergence of views is hidden by strong rhetoric on both sides. But its proponents say evidence is mounting that the third force is one to be reckoned with:

*Conservatives and liberals join in a coalition to eliminate "corporate welfare," or government subsidies to business and agricultural interests. Among the corporate-welfare bedfellows are Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio, House Budget Committee chairman and deficit hawk, and consumer crusader Ralph Nader.

*A group of Republican lawmakers, many of them conservatives, form the "Renewal Alliance" and call for solutions to inner-city poverty that go beyond traditional conservative and liberal approaches.

*Two think tanks with solid Republican and Democratic credentials join with Sens. Spencer Abraham (R) of Michigan and Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut to highlight areas in which the two parties can work together to pass legislation.

What's motivating these new alignments? For one, both parties have a clear sense that voters want results from their government, not more partisan bickering. Moreover, a growing number of lawmakers on both sides may be coming to believe that the private sector is a better problem-solver than government is.

To be sure, ideologues on the left or the right are not about to abandon their traditional positions. Serious philosophical differences remain, and many of the centrist approaches have generated hostility from interest groups on all sides.

"Traditionally there have been two competing visions as to how one addresses these issues," Senator Abraham says. "One view is ... that if we just make the country more prosperous ... more opportunities will be available for more folks to get on the economic ladder. The other view has been that if government acts as a caretaker in an ever-growing sense, that problems will be addressed because government will be the answer." Neither approach by itself has worked adequately, he says.

For its part, the loosely knit Renewal Alliance wants the federal government to help businesses, grass-roots organizations, and charities - including faith-based groups - that have proved to be effective in battling social problems such as homelessness and illiteracy. Renewal Alliance members say they do not intend to limit their ranks to Republicans.

Heritage's Mr. Butler says many Republicans and Democrats have come to agree on three central themes: a desire for government to be as efficient as possible; a belief that the function of government is to set standards, demand accountability, and provide the public with information to make intelligent choices; and a conviction that consumer-driven markets easily outperform bureaucratic central planning.

"To create a new model of government, we have to break down the stifling, monopolistic public bureaucracy," says PPI's Mr. Marshall. "It's a question of holding government responsible for outcomes, not for compliance with procedural rules."

Potential areas of agreement

Lieberman, Abraham, Butler, and Marshall believe Congress can reach agreement soon on several issues.

Balancing the budget. Lieberman calls this "the issue of this session." It will undoubtedly require reform of entitlement programs.

Medicare reform. Health-care coverage for the elderly must use marketplace mechanisms to deliver services efficiently, Lieberman says.

Help for the inner city. Legislation intended to "supercharge" urban enterprise zones is expected to be reintroduced - with bipartisan support. Cleanup of contaminated "brownfields" is also on the agenda.

Education. Lieberman calls for testing to ensure that students meet academic standards, school vouchers, and more charter schools. Butler says that public schools must compete and that "there must be an exit option from the public schools."

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