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Will a taste of civility lead to bipartisanship?

A variety of new faces showed up for the first day of the "lame duck" session in Congress.

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2010; 1:10 AM

After a campaign notable for invective and negativity, a modicum of civility has broken out in Washington this week. Is it a harbinger of genuine bipartisan cooperation ahead or an illusory moment before a quick return to partisan combat in the capital?

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Tuesday's meeting between President Obama and congressional leaders produced no breakthroughs on the big issues that must be dealt with during the lame-duck session. But by all accounts, it was at least a polite discussion of the two sides' differences as well as a recognition of their shared responsibilities to govern, rather than another empty episode of partisan point scoring.

Wednesday's public meeting of the president's deficit commission was equally civilized, despite the policy differences that remain among the members. It seems clear that close interaction over a period of months produced a mutual respect that transcends the ideological gulf that still separates the members.

That's hardly enough to declare that a new era of cooperation has arrived. Both sides are now in a period of testing - probing one another for signs of cooperativeness and compromise while trying to evaluate the limits of public opinion and voters' patience for renewed partisan warfare. Which is why the meeting on Tuesday and the participants' reviews of it afterward were done with a minimum of demands or accusations.

The philosophical differences between Obama and the Republicans are too large and too deeply held to suggest any quick change in the climate that existed during the past two years. Whether the issue is taxes, spending, health care or entitlements, the two sides remain miles apart. Still, the November election has tempered Washington, at least in the short term.

"There's no question that tonally things have changed," said Pete Wehner, a Bush administration official now with the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Those are inevitable after elections. Elections arouse partisan passions, and then they die down. That is good."

On some issues, particularly those on the agenda for the lame-duck session, Republicans and Democrats have little choice but to find a solution. The Bush tax cuts expire at the end of the year, and nobody favors that. Both sides want to find a way to preserve some or all of them, permanently or temporarily. Similarly, compromise is likely on extending unemployment benefits, if only because Republicans can't afford to look like they favor tax cuts for the wealthy while denying jobless workers unemployment compensation.

After Tuesday's meeting at the White House, there is greater optimism for a possible deal on these issues during the lame duck session, along with ratification of the New START pact.

But William Galston of the Brookings Institution cautions that successful cooperation on the pressing issues of the lame-duck session will not necessarily lead to continued bipartisanship when the new 112th Congress convenes in January. Instead, he said, a period of disagreement is likely, even inevitable.

"After things that have to get done get done, the psychology in the short term will revert to one of confrontation," he said.

Wehner, too, expressed skepticism - which is widely shared - that civility will lead to real cooperation. "I view most of what happens between now and 2012 as an undercard, or shadow boxing, to the main event in 2012," he said.

The reasons have much to do with the makeup of the new Republican majority in the House and the tea party voters who were instrumental in creating it. However mindful Republican leaders are of the dangers of overplaying their hand, they know they must try to live up to their promises to cut government spending and repeal the new health-care law.


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