Where Bush goes from here

Six things he can do to get out of the starting blocks fast - and build momentum.

Gridlock. Stale-mate. Protests in the streets. Gloomy predictions loom over Congress and the White House after the closest, most fractious presidential election in modern times.

The uppermost question now: What can the incoming Republican president and the just-barely-GOP Congress, neither with impressive public mandates, actually get done?

The short answer: Start with widely popular proposals, and move slowly on big initiatives that might stir partisan passions.

Remember those George W. Bush promises of sweeping tax cuts? And privatizing Social Security? And overhauling Medicare? Those big ideas, popular with staunch Bush supporters, may have to be put on the shelf - at least for a while.

But that doesn't necessarily leave Mr. Bush empty-handed. A small but identifiable number of issues have drawn support from both sides of the aisle - and may yet furnish the Bush administration with a starting place.

These are what pollster Frank Luntz, who tilts Republican, calls "60 percent issues" - proposals that quickly garner at least 60

percent support among the public, as well as in the House and Senate. Among them are issues such as:

* Easing the tax "penalty" for married couples.

* Ending the estate tax.

* Raising the pay for people serving in the military.

All of these issues have solid backing among Republican lawmakers, and are popular with at least a significant minority of Democratic members of Congress.

A spokesman for the Republican leadership in the House adds three other proposals that could be early action items in the new Bush administration:

* Higher funding for education at the kindergarten through high school levels.

* Expansion of IRA, 401(k), and 403(b) retirement programs.

* Widening of provisions in Medicaid to include health care for legal immigrants and pregnant women.

In 1995, when he was the new governor of Texas, Bush faced a similarly daunting task of working with a Democratic-dominated Legislature. He has often cited his success at forging bipartisan coalitions in the Texas Legislature as proof that he could work with Democrats in Congress. That boast now will be sorely tested.

If Bush is looking for quick and early victories, the "marriage penalty" in the US income-tax code is one place he might be successful, according to sources on Capitol Hill.

Earlier this year, with GOP leadership, the House passed the Marriage Penalty Tax Relief bill by a wide margin - with the votes of 48 Democrats. The Senate followed suit with support from seven Democrats. The tax-relief bill, however, was ultimately killed by President Clinton's veto.

Capitalizing on cross-party issues like this, Bush - the first president elected without a plurality of the vote in 112 years - could hope to build a popular mandate that he did not win convincingly from the voters.

Pollster John Zogby concedes the job will be "daunting." But Bush, with the bully pulpit of the White House, could conceivably shift public opinion his way with early successes.

One of the greatest threats to this plan could come not from Democrats, but from Republicans.

Tom DeLay, the Republican majority whip in the House and a fellow Texan, already raised the hackles of congressional Democrats when he vowed Dec. 6 that if there is bipartisan harmony on the Hill, it will be on Republican terms.

"The things we have been dreaming about, now we can finally do," Mr. DeLay said - a reference to the GOP control of the White House, the House, and (with the tie-breaking vote of the incoming Republican vice president) the 50-50 Senate.

DeLay's openly partisan rhetoric alarmed even some fellow Republicans - who already see the 2002 election hanging over Capitol Hill like a sword. Republicans know that the "in" party - the one that controls the White House - traditionally loses seats in Congress in the mid-term election after a new president takes office.

Even small GOP losses in 2002 could be imperil Republicans' control of the House, where their margin is a tiny 221 to 212. In the Senate, divided 50-50, the loss of a single seat could throw control to the Democrats. Already, some Democrats are predicting that after 2002, Bush will face both a Democratic House and Senate.

This escalates pressure on the Republicans, both in Congress and in the White House, to get something done - and fast - to make a positive impression on voters.

It also makes it far more difficult to grapple with politically sensitive issues, such as Social Security reform, or drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or pushing through an overhaul of the tax code.

Yet if the campaign showed one thing, it is that both Gore and Bush agreed that some of the nation's biggest programs - from the tax code, to Social Security and Medicare, to the structure of the post-cold-war military - need a thorough rethinking. Both agreed, for example, that senior Americans should have prescription-drug benefits under Medicare.

A number of Democrats, including 20-year veteran Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and newly elected Rep. Adam Schiff of California, are promising they will work across party lines to get things done.

Meanwhile, though gridlock sounds ominous, at least some Americans think it's not entirely a bad idea, according to a recent poll.

The nationwide Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll of 989 Americans found that nearly 1 in 5 voters said that a government evenly balanced between Republicans and Democrats was a good thing. A better balance reduces the number of extreme measures, and forces politicians in both parties to seek compromise, some voters said.

Maria Osborne, a housewife and registered Democrat in Granite Falls, N.C., explains that she personally favors a Republican president and a Democratic Congress because government works better when one party doesn't have all the power.

"They do fight, but doesn't everyone?" she asks. "I just believe that [balance] brings in more ideas and opinions, and brings more creativity."

It looks as if the next two years will test Mrs. Osborne's theory.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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