Rush to the Center

The results of both parties' House leadership races this week say a lot about the state of American politics.

In nominating Robert Livingston of Louisiana for Speaker, keeping majority leader Dick Armey and whip Tom DeLay of Texas, and electing J.C. Watts of Oklahoma conference chairman, Republicans opted for a mix of old and new faces. Mindful of their need to attract more women and minorities to the GOP banner, they also voted for diversity. Watts becomes the first black House GOP leader. Women hang onto two of the top six positions.

House Democrats elected a Hispanic, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, as caucus vice chairman. They made a move towards the center with the election of Martin Frost of Texas as caucus chairman. With the key jobs held by men, minority leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri rushed to create some appointed leadership jobs for Democratic women.

With a minuscule 11 votes separating the two parties, each proclaims its unity. Each, however, has serious divisions on key issues. Gephardt says Democrats will get moderate Republicans to vote for their bills. Livingston says he wants to reach out to like-minded Democrats when possible. That would be a significant change from Speaker Newt Gingrich, who tried whenever possible to pass bills relying solely on Republican votes

Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota says three changes favor the Democrats. The Nov. 3 vote, he says, signaled that Americans want action on issues the Democrats press: teen smoking, managed-care reform, campaign-finance reform, school construction, and raising the minimum wage. Also, he says, the 2000 election will move some Republicans to the center. Finally, Americans want more bipartisanship.

Perhaps. More likely, Republicans will develop their own approaches to many of those issues. If House GOP factions cannot agree, Mr. Livingston could simply move proposals to the floor and let the Democrats break the deadlock. That threat could help keep Republicans on the ranch.

GOP leaders should also quickly set up bipartisan talks with the White House on Social Security reform, a Medicare fix, and a tax cut. Such an approach is the best way to develop the bipartisan consensus that will be needed to pass such measures.

Partisan competition won't disappear. But in the 106th Congress it could resemble a legislative sumo-wrestling match - with the success of either party in 2000 depending on its ability to push the other out of the political center, and to stay there itself.

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