Why Congress Is Stuck

Four stubborn facts confront congressional Republicans as they return from the Memorial Day recess and try to craft a strategy for the rest of the year:

*Their six-vote majority is not enough to run the House of Representatives on their own terms. It's too easy for a small group to desert.

*They don't have the 60 votes in the Senate needed to block a Democrat filibuster and control the agenda.

*House and Senate Republicans frequently disagree on strategy, policy, and tactics.

*A presidential veto can block anything less than two-thirds of Congress and kill a bill.

The challenge for GOP leaders is to wrest the agenda back from the White House and Hill Democrats, who have skillfully exploited the Republicans' differences and congressional rules to push their own proposals.

Some Republicans argue that they should pass their legislation even if they know President Clinton will veto it and they can't override. That, they say, will draw clear distinctions for voters, who will side with them over the Democrats. Others in the GOP insist the public hates gridlock and partisan bickering. They argue that voters will reward them if Republicans compromise with the president and compatible Democrats.

Members overboard

The recess began with House Republicans jumping out of Speaker Dennis Hastert's lifeboat in all directions. A handful of moderates signed the Democrats' petition to force campaign-finance reform to the floor sooner than the Speaker's commitment to September. The usual group of hard-core conservatives, worried that leaders were setting up a scenario to bust the budget caps agreed to in 1997, balked at the leadership's strategy for passing the annual spending bills and blocked the first two to hit the floor - the supposedly "easy" ones.

The speaker's dilemma: He must either find a strategy to implement the budget that all GOP members can agree on, or he must craft a plan that attracts enough Democrats to replace the Republicans who desert. That is especially true when (1) GOP budget hawks and appropriators disagree on whether to lift the caps and (2) the White House and House minority leader Dick Gephardt appear to favor confrontation, rather than cooperation, as the key to winning back the lower chamber in 2000.

In the Senate, majority leader Trent Lott faces grumbling from fellow Republicans over his inability to get around Democratic leader Tom Daschle's full-court press. The game is simple: When Mr. Lott brings up GOP policy bills, Mr. Daschle tries to tack on Democratic amendments and force the GOP into embarrassing floor votes. Lott maneuvers to avoid this by limiting the number of amendments, but he doesn't have the 60 votes needed under Senate rules to shut off the resulting Democratic filibuster. So he has to cut a deal, if he can, or withdraw the bill.

Then there's the wall the GOP has slammed into ever since it regained control of Congress in 1994: Mr. Clinton's veto. Once Republicans can get over all the other hurdles, if what they have passed doesn't have serious Democratic support, it's going nowhere.

Political standoff

Republicans may control the House and Senate, but they're essentially running a minority government. The combination of their narrow House majority and a Democrat in the White House leaves them little room to maneuver. With Clinton indebted to the liberal Democrats who defended him during his impeachment and trial, he gives no indication yet of readiness to cut deals with the GOP as he did in previous Congresses. The war in Yugoslavia, which splits both parties, and GOP members' profound distrust of the president complicate the situation.

With power almost equally balanced, neither side can roll the other. Both parties are digging in their heels because so much is at stake. While few observers currently believe the Democrats can take the Senate in 2000, they have a good shot at both the House and the executive mansion. Republicans, on the other hand, see an opportunity to grab all three.

It will take all the political skill Hastert and Lott can muster to pass the annual spending bills and avoid a government shutdown, much less advance the GOP legislative agenda on education, taxes, and other important issues. (Some Democrats would love to engineer a shutdown, hoping the public will once again blame the GOP.) To get anything done, both sides will have to give a little. Urgent projects like the reform of Social Security and Medicare are languishing. Lawmakers and the president need to put aside their November 2000 strategizing, and find ways to work together in 1999.

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