A case for power sharing - or not

Democrats on the Hill see an even split. GOP leaders see a majority - and an opportunity to move their agenda.

The next Congress, now split more evenly along party lines than it has been for decades, is in the throes of grappling with an idea that has become almost alien to Washington: power sharing.

How the lines of authority get drawn - especially in the US Senate, which faces the prospect of a 50-50 divide - may set the tone for partisan relations in Washington for at least the next two years.

Most obviously, the jostling is between Democrats and Republicans. But behind the scenes, GOP senators have been quibbling among themselves over how much power to share with their 50 Democratic colleagues.

For now, in a sign that bodes poorly for bipartisanship, GOP conservatives appear to be coming out on top of moderates, who are more inclined to offer Democrats olive branches such as equal membership on committees, greater parity in staff and budget, and even the perk of better office space.

But much more is at stake than whose nameplate hangs on which Senate doors. For Republicans, the long-awaited moment of hegemony - control of the US House, Senate, White House, and governorships - is finally at hand, and the conservative GOP leadership may see no need to be conciliatory amid such supremacy.

Already, restive Republicans in the House, emboldened by what they think is George W. Bush's win of the White House, have decided to pick new fights with a lame duck President Clinton.

All this promises to create a fundamental challenge for any incoming chief executive: Before he unifies the nation, he is going to have to unify senators and representatives.

"The great paradox of this election is that Republicans control the presidency, the House, and the Senate for the first time in decades," says Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the Hudson Institute here. "But they're going to have to pay a significant price to achieve legislative results in an evenly divided Senate."

Not everything on the Hill, of course, is acrimony. Lawmakers are also aware of the public's weariness of partisanship - particularly after a drawn-out election fight in Florida - and they're making efforts to bridge differences. This is particularly true of moderates in both parties.

This week, more than a quarter of the new Senate launched a bipartisan coalition of moderates to work out compromises on issues like education and campaign finance reform. House moderates did the same. Both groups say that the tight margins in the next Congress are a mandate to set a new tone of cooperation.

"Nothing will get done in the House or Senate unless it's bipartisan," says James Greenwood (R) of Pennsylvania. "That's all there is to it."

Still, this week held some indications that the Republican leadership on the Hill is feeling empowered. Expecting a new administration to be on his side, House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas adopted a more combative public stance toward post-election budget negotiations with the White House.

He is urging Congress to freeze spending at current levels for remaining bills. While Clinton vows not to sign such bills, DeLay has made it clear he will stand firm.

"If [Clinton] wants to shut down the government, that's his problem, " he said. "We have the House, we have the Senate, we have the White House, which means we have the agenda."

To some extent, GOP bravado reflects what the Republicans hope to do with their new-found preeminence. GOP strategists say that if Bush becomes president, Republicans will be able to take their case directly to the people - something they haven't been able to do for eight years.

"DeLay's optimism about this is contingent upon Republicans using the soapbox of the presidency and other soapboxes that come with the presidency ... to define what they are about," says Michael Franc, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation here.

In the Senate, the differences are equally stark. Even if Al Gore were to win the presidency (and the upper chamber goes back to 49-51 split when a Republican replaces Sen. Joseph Lieberman), Democrats want more say in how the institution is run. "We will not be satisfied with anything less than a 50-50 split in the responsibilities and opportunities …," says Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota.

He says Democrats expect to use their 17 days in the majority (before the new president is sworn in) to organize the next Senate. Some GOP stalwarts reject such a plan. Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah says committees need at least a one-vote margin to function effectively. "You can't have responsibility unless you're in charge," he says.

But Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina have already worked out a powersharing agreement for one committee. Parties will have an equal ratio for both budget and staffing.

Historically, power-sharing hasn't worked well in a split Senate. It's happened only twice - and each time, the issue wasn't resolved until the problem went away. In 1881, the Senate was divided 37-37, with two independents. A session that was to have lasted 11 days - to clear Cabinet appointments for GOP President James Garfield - dragged on for 11 weeks.

Eventually, Republicans won over one of two independents. Even then, the Senate was deadlocked, until the resignation of two Republicans gave Democrats a majority.

Between 1953 and 1955, Senate control switched back and forth several times, as nine senators died during this session. In the end, the new Democratic majority leader, Lyndon Johnson, allowed Republicans to maintain control of committees for the remaining months of the session.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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