Will action or ideology propel next Congress?
Success may depend on whether moderates set the agenda.
WASHINGTON — As one of the most bitterly divided Congresses in American history wound down last week, legislators on both sides of the aisle promised that the next Congress would be different.
Early signs are encouraging: The majority and minority leaders in the House are speaking again. Senate leaders promise a new tone of bipartisan cooperation.
President-elect George W. Bush is meeting with Democratic moderates like Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, and looking for Democrats to fill out his Cabinet.
But the success of a Bush presidency, in the end, may hinge on whether the moderates in Congress can grab control from the more partisan leadership on both sides - making issues, not ideology, their organizing principle.
The president-elect set the focus on issues and bipartisan cooperation early on. His first speech after the end of the Long Count was in the Democratic-controlled Texas House of Representatives, the venue for big bipartisan agreements on tax cuts and education reform. On Saturday, he announced his choice of Colin Powell as secretary of State in a school.
Yet conservative Republicans are already grumbling that they didn't wait half a century for control of the White House and Congress only to give in to centrists before the first fight.
"We are worried about the attitude among some Republicans about making nice with Democrats and abandoning the issues Bush ran on, such as a $1.3 trillion tax cut," says Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative group that financed campaigns against GOP moderates in the last election.
At the same time, conservatives associated with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract with America are launching a campaign to build public support for signature conservative issues, such as tax cuts, school vouchers, and Social Security privatization. But they insist that the purpose of their new group is not to prevent Bush from "selling out," as one news report put it.
"The ideas we're talking about are the ideas Bush ran on," said Scott Reed, a founder of this group, at a recent Monitor breakfast. "We need to move beyond the Florida electoral issue, explain issues in a way that people can talk about them around the dinner table, and get things accomplished in the Congress," he said.
That won't be easy. First, the new Congress will have to get over the fallout from the long and bitter "contested phase" of the presidential election.
In his first speech on the floor of the Senate since the campaign, Al Gore's running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, called for an "investigation of voting systems, not just in Florida, but around the country." Other lawmakers in both parties are calling for a multibillion-dollar plan to upgrade the electoral system throughout the country. The issue could mark the first victory for the new president and centrists in both parties.
At the same time, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona is putting his post-election prestige on the line to overhaul campaign finance. The House has already passed a version of campaign-finance reform twice, most recently in 1999, but GOP leaders have blocked the issue in the Senate.
On Friday, Senator McCain said he now has the 60 votes needed to move the issue in the new Senate. "As soon as legislatively possible, I'd like to offer campaign-finance reform, and then let Governor Bush get on with his campaign agenda," he said.
How Bush responds to this issue will be an early test of his ability to build the alliances with moderates he needs to move the rest of his program.
"There is an opportunity here for Bush to show boldness and imagination, by embracing campaign-finance reform along with electoral reform," says Marshall Wittmann of the Washington-based Hudson Institute.
During his campaign, Bush proposed banning corporations and unions from giving so-called "soft" money to political parties. But he was against limiting contributions from individuals, which he said would limit First Amendment rights. McCain's aides say that a ban on such individual contributions will be "the centerpiece" of his new campaign-finance bill.
"This issue isn't on the president-elect's list of priorities, but the question is, will it be part of his new bipartisan approach?" says Trevor Potter, co-chair of the Campaign Finance Institute and a McCain 2000 campaign adviser.
The number of lawmakers expressing interest in the issue shows a clear desire to show the public they're willing to work together, adds Mr. Potter.
"The new activity around this issue signals a clear desire by many members of the new Congress to show that they can accomplish something," he adds.
Indeed, centrists in Congress - eclipsed in recent years by their polarized leaderships - are on a rebound.
"We're trying to develop a new breed in the Congress called 'militant moderates,' " says a congressional aide.
In recent days, new issue-oriented, bipartisan coalitions in both the House and Senate have come together so quickly that members have yet to agree on a name. They say they will hold the balance in the new Congress.
"To those who say it's all extremes in the Congress, we say that the extremely reasonable group - moderate Republicans and Democrats - are getting together," says Rep. Amo Houghton (R) of New York, a leader of centrist groups such as the Republican Main Street Partnership.
End of the blame game?
Representative Houghton and others are calling for congressional leaders to focus on issues for which there is already bipartisan support, such as campaign-finance reform, healthcare, and education. And he urges the leadership of both parties to "criticize and quiet the hotheaded troublemakers in their own parties."
Some see the close margins in the new Congress as an opportunity to break gridlock and build coalitions from the center. "With a 50-50 split in the Senate, neither side has the advantage of being the minority, being obstructionist, and then saying, 'They won't let us.' The math won't let you. This blaming thing can't continue," says Amy Wilkins of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that aims to improve education for poor children.
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