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  • Conditions Are Right for Hill Cooperation, 'Right on the Edge'

    By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, January 19, 1997; Page E15

    President Clinton is challenging the conventional wisdom that second terms are doomed from the start on Capitol Hill, and Republican leaders, seeking a second chance of their own, say they want to help him make some legislative history.

    But good will has already been strained by both parties' efforts to score political points over the ethics of each other's leaders, principally Clinton's fund-raising practices and admitted ethical lapses by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). The danger is that excess by one party begets excess by the other, destroying the trust essential to the functioning of divided government.

    "The conditions are right [for cooperation], but they are also right on the edge," said Charles O. Jones, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin.

    House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) became so alarmed at the prospect of damage from an ethics war that he called recently for a cease-fire, including "calling back the bloodhounds on Bill Clinton."

    While Clinton had the upper hand with a Democratic-led Congress four years ago and Republicans were clearly in command after winning control of both houses two years later, both suffered from promising more than they could deliver and were punished by the voters.

    Now neither seems to have a clear edge.

    "There's a teeter-totter principle at work," said Stephen Hess, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Right now they're both just sitting there with their feet dangling down and waiting."

    A 'Mutual Dependency'
    Democrats and some Republicans say presidents nearly always have an advantage because Congress speaks with "a babble of voices," as Hess put it.

    It is closely divided between the parties, and there are divisions among Republicans. Republicans outnumber Democrats 227 to 208 in the House, a smaller margin than they had two years ago, and, while they gained seats in the Senate, they are still five votes short of the 60 required to shut off Democratic filibusters.

    Clinton will also have a new "line-item veto" power enabling him to reject specific items in spending bills, which Congress can reinstate only by a two-thirds vote. Legislation creating the line-item veto is under attack in federal court. Pending outcome of the case, the possibility Clinton will have this important new power could significantly enhance his bargaining clout with Congress on important spending issues.

    Moreover, according to those who give Clinton the edge, the president seems to have learned from his mistakes of four years ago and plans to govern from the center, where, as his recent campaign indicated, he is well-positioned to co-opt Republicans and their issues.

    Other Republicans and some Democrats say Clinton has gone so far in embracing GOP principles on deficits, welfare, crime and other issues that Clinton victories may be Republican victories in disguise.

    On policy matters, such as the budget and taxes, Republicans still "control the fuel pedal, while Clinton has the brake pedal," said John J. Pitney, a political science professor and student of congressional Republicans at Claremont McKenna College in California.

    Regardless of who has the opening edge, Democrats as well as Republicans speak of an unusually symbiotic relationship between Clinton and the GOP-led 105th Congress.

    There is a "mutual dependency, under which both sides need each other to show they can govern," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) said. "They all have their eyes on the history books," said veteran Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

    "It's in their narrow self-interest to cooperate," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who served as congressional liaison and chief of staff for President Ronald Reagan. "Clinton is aiming for a place in history, Gingrich for resurrection, and [Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott to demonstrate he can govern," Duberstein said. Vice President Gore "would like to dispose of fiscal issues like the balanced budget and solvency of Medicare before he runs, and House Republicans have learned this is a nation of incrementalists and not a nation of revolutionaries."

    Taking Smaller Steps Together
    Chastened by earlier failures and jittery over their mutual ethics problems, Clinton and the GOP have so far concentrated most on what unites them, especially on producing the balanced budget that eluded them during the second half of Clinton's first term. Clinton has said balancing the budget is his main goal, and Republicans say a plan to achieve it is close at hand.

    Gone are the daring and provocative initiatives of Clinton's first term from his ambitious health care plan in 1994 to the GOP's "revolutionary" agenda a year later, both of which became political liabilities.

    Instead, lawmakers of both parties foresee more of the smaller steps that Clinton and Republicans took together late last year on health care, education and the minimum wage—popular moves that helped Clinton and congressional Republicans return to power in the Nov. 5 elections.

    For instance, lawmakers seem more optimistic about a short-term fix for Medicare financing than they do about major reform of entitlement programs. Republicans say modest steps to reduce regulatory burdens are more likely than another frontal assault on the government's regulatory powers, which enabled Democrats to characterize them as despoilers of the environment and threats to the nation's safety and health.

    Despite the furor over campaign financing abuses, a comprehensive overhaul of the campaign funding system is likely to run into the same partisan problems that torpedoed previous reform efforts, many lawmakers say. But some have not given up on narrower legislation to cure some of the worst abuses.

    And, while Clinton and Congress are not likely to embark on a complete overhaul of the tax code, both sides say agreement is possible on specific tax cuts, such as tuition credits and targeted reductions for capital gains.

    "It's easier when you're pragmatic and incremental because the American public is pragmatic and incremental," said James A. Thurber, professor of American government at American University. "Whether it solves the problems is another matter."

    "In a way, Gingrich put his finger on it: It will be the 'implementation Congress,' " as the speaker predicted after the November elections, said Pitney, the Claremont McKenna professor. "I think both sides are gun-shy," he added.

    Republicans are constrained in the House by the voter backlash against their confrontational tactics in 1995 and by the humbling of Gingrich after he admitted to giving false information to the ethics committee in its probe into financing for college courses he taught.

    But the elections produced a stronger conservative GOP base in the Senate, with an adroit and decidedly unhumbled leader in the person of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was elected to his first full term as majority leader last month. Lott has none of Gingrich's personal difficulties and he cut many of the deals that gave the 104th Congress something to brag about, putting him in a preeminent position for the 105th Congress.

    For Clinton, the good news is that Lott for all his sometimes hard-edged conservative ideology likes nothing better than to pass legislation and has been talking of working closely with Clinton to assure that this happens. The bad news is that Lott can play hardball with the best of them and is not likely to be charmed into submission by Clinton, as Gingrich admitted he was during budget negotiations in the last Congress.

    Looming Investigations
    Probably the biggest problem for Clinton is the investigations planned by committees of both houses into questionable fund-raising on the president's behalf from foreign and other illegal sources. They are planned for early this year, just as Clinton and Republicans hope to be laying the groundwork for cooperative efforts on legislation.

    While many believe the Clinton-Gingrich ethics problems could poison the well for everything else, Lott and other key Republicans have talked of keeping the investigations from getting in the way of cooperation on policy. Some even believe that scandals, unless they get out of hand, can serve as an incentive for legislative achievement.

    Citing the example of Reagan and his second-term embarrassment over arms sales to Iran and diversion of the proceeds to Nicaraguan guerrillas, the University of Wisconsin's Jones said the furor actually helped generate legislation at the end of Reagan's administration.

    "One of the reasons why Reagan's second term was so productive was that no one ever wants to go out with a crippled, failed administration," Jones said. So Reagan went out of his way to bury the Iran-contra controversy under a heavy load of high-profile legislation on everything from taxes to welfare and trade policy, he added.

    While statistical studies show support for presidential initiatives normally declines on Capitol Hill during second terms, Reagan's experience indicates it is not a hard-and-fast rule, Jones and others said.

    "There is always the potential for a fizzle after the second inauguration," Daschle said. "But the history of this president is always to be the last man standing. If anyone will play it to the last day, it is Bill Clinton."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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