Fresh Views From Freshmen

The country has had a fresh earful of partisan shrillness since the Florida Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. It yearns for something else. The presidential candidates, whoever "wins," have a responsibility to sound notes of reconciliation.

So does the freshman class in Congress (there are 41 of them, 28 Republicans, 13 Democrats). They have an opportunity to show voters what they've wanted to see for years - bipartisan cooperation that moves vital legislation forward.

The sharply partisan presidential campaign puts unusual pressure on the 107th Congress to reach across party lines. The closeness of that race and the lack of a clear majority in the House or the Senate add to that pressure.

What else is needed to bring about a new era of bipartisanship?

* Those already in their seats on Capitol Hill should seize a golden opportunity to demonstrate an ability to work together, thus setting an example for the newcomers.

To be specific, it's not too late for a new attitude to prevail in the upcoming lame-duck session. The $1.8 trillion federal budget needs finishing. Eight out of 13 appropriations bills funding government agencies have been approved; it's past time to hammer out agreement on the rest in ways that depart from the well-worn partisan ruts of the 106th Congress.

Not least, Senate minority leader Dick Gephardt and House Speaker Dennis Hastert can end the folly of not speaking to each other. That sets a poor example for getting work done in an atmosphere charged with division.

* The new members can do their part by not getting sucked into a partisan whirlpool. That pull usually starts just after a new crop of lawmakers arrive in town. One congressman commented recently, "The first thing and the last nonpartisan thing you do is take a bus together from the hotel to the Hill. Then, everybody splits. By the time there is a bipartisan function, the clear impression has already been made - you've also been elected to the Republican Conference or the Democratic Caucus."

There are ways to break out of that mold. Ten of the Democratic freshmen have joined the New Democrats faction, which is a hopeful sign for centrist coalition-building and legislative action. Informal membership organizations are another possibility. They provide lawmakers with added opportunities to interact. Past and present members of Congress say don't underestimate joining the gym as a way to foster friendships; the same goes for attending interdenominational prayer breakfasts.

* Not least, both sides of the aisle share common interests in issues that demand congressional action. A few examples: An income tax cut (though not on the scale debated in the campaign), healthcare legislation spelling out patients' rights, an increase in the minimum wage, and an elementary and secondary education act that gets behind needed reforms.

To make progress on these and other issues, members of Congress will need to accept the value of consensus-building. They'll need to work hard to form what could seem like unlikely alliances.

But they can count on one thing: The Americans who voted them in would rather see movement in a few key areas where consensus is possible than a "block the box" attitude that allows nothing to get through.

Lee Hamilton, formerly an influential Democratic congressman from Indiana and now director of the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, notes, "It's very easy to campaign against Congress, but as a member, you realize you're part of an institution and have a responsibility to the Institution and making it work."

The freshmen and the entire 107th Congress should heed those words.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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