Washington's awkward attempt at bipartisanship

Not wanting to be labeled the part of impeachment, the GOP is ready tocompromise, but for how long?

Washington this week was like a junior-high dance.

President Clinton and the Republican leadership in Congress studied each other across a wide gym floor. They made eye contact, walked to the snack table, and struck up an awkward conversation.

Whether the two will actually get to the dance floor is anybody's guess. But at least they are talking, say political observers, who point to the importance of this week's bagel-and-scone session at the White House. It was the first time the now-impeached president has had a prolonged, face-to-face discussion with Republican leaders in nearly 18 months.

"Both sides are trying to feel out how much they can trust each other," says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation here.

And the two sides are actually several steps closer to each other than they were even a week ago. Republicans, not wanting to be labeled as the party of impeachment, have made some surprising moves to help bring the two sides closer together, observers say.

Earlier this month, for instance, Republicans were talking about a 10 percent, across-the-board tax cut as the most likely move to bring them back into voters' favor. It was key in the tussle over how to spend the surpluses of the years ahead, and at odds with the White House priority of spending 77 percent of foreseeable surpluses on Social Security and Medicare.

But the GOP leadership never got to make their case to the president this week because members in Congress began to back away from it. Sensing voter disinterest in a big, broad tax cut, Republican leaders now talk about a smaller, across-the-board cut. Even then, it's suggested as only one option, along with several targeted tax cuts - the approach favored by the Clinton administration.

"If Republicans had pushed for tax cuts absolutely first and foremost ... they [and Clinton] would be way far apart, so therefore, they are closer together and significantly so," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington.

Of course, the size and kind of tax reductions are still very much in dispute, with Republicans in general wanting more than the White House is willing to grant. One area for compromise, hinted White House spokesman Joe Lockhart this week, might be relief from the so-called marriage penalty, a tax quirk in which a married couple pays more taxes than they would as two single people.

House Republicans are moving toward the White House on another surprising issue: raising the minimum wage.

The last time Congress raised the minimum wage was in 1996, when it bumped it up to $5.15. Republicans last year killed a $1 increase.

But House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois indicated earlier this week that Republicans and Democrats might find middle ground on this traditionally partisan issue. Congress, he said, should help entry-level workers without threatening their jobs.

"There needs to be a balance, and I think we can come to that balance," he said.

A third area of common ground looks to be a patients' bill of rights, where lawmakers on both sides sense intense voter interest. "The whole idea of a patients' bill of rights has been associated with Clinton.... They'll accept pretty modest things there just so they can claim they got a patients' bill of rights," says Stephen Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University here.

But political observers like Professor Wayne point out that it's still far too early to tell what will come out of this Congress.

One factor, Wayne says, is that the Republicans are still in disarray. They are able to agree broadly on a strategy of tax cuts, saving Social Security, and improving education, but that's as far as they've gotten. "The Republicans haven't developed the consensus to move ahead," he says.

YET the biggest unknown is: What will Democrats in Congress want? Many political analysts suspect they want a do-nothing, or a do-little Congress that they can blame on Republicans in the next election. "Why would congressional Democrats want to see congressional Republicans achieve results, when the objective of congressional Democrats is to retake at least the House in 2000?" asks Mr. Wittmann.

Coming to agreement on such major issues as saving Social Security requires trust, he says - something that's nonexistent after the most partisan year in recent political memory. To help remedy this, members of both parties have agreed to meet in Hershey, Pa., next month at a "congeniality" retreat.

But for now, both sides are still wary. Republicans may smile before the cameras as they confer with Democrats and the White House, says Wittmann, "but they'll check their wallets on the way out."

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