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Holding High Notes: No Disagreement Yet

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 20, 1997; Page A01

President Clinton triggered shouts of "Amen!" from among the bundled-up, out-of-town crowds when he said yesterday that voters did not reelect a Democratic president and a Republican Congress in order "to advance the politics of petty bickering."

So it was that as Bob and Marietta Heule walked off the Mall after the inaugural speech, they agreed that the one Clinton line they will take back home to Milwaukee is that "nothing big ever came from being small." They will keep this pithy homily in mind, they said, when Clinton starts mud-wrestling with the Republicans.

Across official Washington yesterday—where worry about corrosive partisanship has supplanted concern over deficit spending, where a March civility summit is being planned so lawmakers can figure out how to make nice with one another—Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that the president's call for a moratorium on meanness was both timely and useful.

Whether it will bear fruit is, of course, doubtful—given the partisan acid that has been spilled this month on Capitol Hill as part of the ethics investigation of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

The vote to approve a House ethics committee recommendation that Gingrich be reprimanded and penalized $300,000 is scheduled for today. Similarly fertile fodder for partisan sniping is available for Republicans in the Supreme Court's consideration of Paula Corbin Jones's sexual harassment suit against the president, and in upcoming Senate hearings on improper Democratic fund-raising. But in the warm glow of Inauguration Day, members of both parties tried their rhetorical best to find encouragement in Clinton's conciliatory tone and his middle-ground declaration that government "is not the problem and . . . is not the solution."

"That's what should be the theme of this Congress," said Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.). "We need to look at how we can slim back government and still recognize that we have standards to maintain."

Republican members of Congress pointed out that Clinton's speech was both short (22 minutes) and short on substance. But for the most part, many chose to be charitable: "The president gave a conciliatory speech," said Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.). "Maybe the reality will closely resemble the rhetoric this time."

Similarly, Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, noted that Clinton "certainly gave a Republican-oriented speech, but time will tell whether or not he means it or it was rhetoric."

And Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), who delivered the keynote speech at last summer's Republican convention, said Clinton focused on matters that all Republicans can live with. "Smaller government, personal responsibility . . . he was talking about those themes that bring us together," she said.

Most notable among the peacemakers yesterday was Gingrich. At the traditional luncheon in the Capitol that follows the swearing-in, the speaker rose to his feet, described the day as a "joyous occasion" and used the symbolism of a reelected Democratic president and Republican Congress to extol the American system. To remind Clinton and Vice President Gore of "the people's house," Gingrich presented both with U.S. flags that flew over the Capitol at 7 a.m.

"This capacity to transfer power . . . is truly one of the miraculous events of the planet," he said. "While we disagree on some things, here you are among friends and, as Americans, we share in wishing you Godspeed."

For his part, Clinton returned at the luncheon to the bipartisan notes he had struck in his inaugural speech. He said he meant it about conciliation between Democrats and Republicans and added: "Tomorrow we start working on it."

From the smiling goodwill at the luncheon, out-of-towners on the Mall (if they had been invited to eat with the bigwigs) would have found it difficult to discern party differences.

Forgotten—or at least ignored—amid the meal of shrimp, oysters, scallops, beef a la mode, beggar's pudding and quince ice cream was an explosively partisan document released Friday by a Democrat on the House ethics panel. Written last year by the speaker's key political strategist, Joseph Gaylord, it advises Gingrich's GOP supporters to trumpet the assorted scandals surrounding the Clinton administration as a way of distracting the American people from the speaker's ethical problems.

During and after lunch, there was little sense of awkwardness among the assembled leaders. Except, perhaps, for the space that Gingrich always seemed to have around him. When the meal was over, as people crowded around Clinton to congratulate him, Gingrich stood somewhat apart. At points, he was virtually alone.

During one of these odd moments of solitude for the speaker, Jesse L. Jackson stepped up to shake his hand and chat.

In doing so, Jackson acted out one of the primary themes of Clinton's inaugural speech, with its frequent references to inclusion, racial harmony and "the generous spirit of a people who feel at home with one another."

Staff writers Helen Dewar and Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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