In Washington, civility in the air

It may seem like a small thing, but one-on-one meetings between the president and opposition leader s are suddenly more common. So are regular confabs between opposing party leaders on Capitol Hill - some of whom hadn't spoken in months. Even thank-you notes are back in vogue: White House Chief of Staff Andy Card has been writing scores of them to lawmakers who've met with him or President Bush.

These are simple gestures, but they are helping to bring an undeniably different tone to Washington politics. After a decade of acid partisanship, the nation's capital for the moment is almost reflecting a white-linen civility.

Gentler winds have been blowing through Washington for only a few weeks, and they may not last when confronted with the harsh blast of actual policymaking. But for now, at least, the new climate is giving rise to talk of compromise and swifter action on issues such as a broad-based tax cut and education reform.

"There's been an across-the-board desire recently to move in the direction of civility, but it needed a catalyst - and that catalyst has turned out to be George W. Bush," says longtime Washington observer Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Bush, of course, pledged during the presidential campaign to "change the tone" in Washington - and his very public efforts to reach out and talk with Democrats on Capitol Hill have only strengthened his hand. So long as Bush is perceived to be the one offering the olive branch, Democrats know they risk losing public support if they pugnaciously unsheathe their knives. That may have been one reason they appeared poised not to hold up John Ashcroft's appointment as US attorney general.

Time will tell whether Bush's outreach is a "getting to know you" gesture or a permanent feature of his governing style, but so far he shows no indication of slowing down. Tomorrow he plans to appear at the Senate Democrats' big strategy gathering - something no recent chief executive has done. He may also attend House Democrats' confab Sunday.

Yesterday he sat down with the Congressional Black Caucus. And he lunched in his private dining room this week, first with Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and then with House minority leader Richard Gephardt.

In a meeting of two of America's political clans, the Bushes plan to host the Kennedys - including Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts - at a screening of "Thirteen Days" in the White House theater tonight.

But more than White House-congressional relations are on the mend. In the Senate, which is evenly split, a Republican-Democrat powersharing deal has led to baby-step cooperation - and moderates wielding more power. In the House, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois and Mr. Gephardt are holding weekly meetings - after not speaking to each other for about six months last year.

One part of the new political calculus is this: Congressional Democrats are heeding the lesson of the past eight years, in which Republicans battled a Democratic president who artfully blasted them from his bully pulpit. In showdowns over government shutdowns, impeachment, and other issues, much of the public came to see Republicans as obstinate - and the GOP lost seats in every election since 1994. Democrats don't want to make the same mistake.

Consider the words of Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, chairman of the committee that will take up Bush's tax-cut plan, after meeting with Bush this week. "Those of us who've been in Washington for a long time are tired of the excessive partisanship," he said. "This president is reaching out to both sides of the aisle - and we're reaching back."

Several other forces are behind the newfound reticence to engage in political bludgeoning. Most lawmakers are reconciled to the fact that the election did not give one side an edge over the other - almost as if voters were telling them to grow up, get along, and get something done.

Indeed, if Bush is focused on one thing more than all else it's "changing the tone." "Bush doesn't have much of a mandate, but the one thing the broad public wants to see is a better way of doing things in Washington," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.

The tide of change is also at work in this shifting political calculus. On taxes, for instance, most of the Democrats' objections to a big tax break have been undercut by economic developments. Consumer confidence is at a four-year low, federal surpluses are now projected to reach $5.6 trillion over 10 years, and talk of recession is growing louder. Suddenly, there's more unanimity on tax cuts than was expected even a month ago.

If the partisan truce holds, lawmaking could be expedited. "It depends on this cooperation thing," says Mr. Baucus. "If we perceive [Bush] as being fair, we'll work with him" - and get a tax cut passed as early as July 4. If not, he says, it could take a lot longer.

But the big question is whether the new tone will last.

"Don't expect miracles," says Mr. Ornstein. Tough issues loom - vouchers, Medicare reform, national missile defense. And the fight over the Ashcroft appointment has exposed a deep rift between the parties on justice appointments. If a US Supreme Court slot opens and Bush names a conservative in the mold of Mr. Ashcroft, the ensuing confirmation battle could shatter today's fragile truce.

Yet for both parties, cooperation may be a matter of survival, says former Democratic Sen. Paul Simon. Otherwise, more third-party candidates - such as Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota - will take over their seats, he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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