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  • By Guy Gugliotta and Terry M. Neal
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page A39

    Maybe the Democrats inflicted the final wound, when Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) warned the Republicans from the House floor: "Bullies get theirs, and you're going to get yours!"

    The Republicans seemed too distracted to reply. As soon as the last vote was taken and the president stood impeached, they skittered out the back door and down two flights of stairs to the basement. They had suddenly lost their leader, and they needed to choose a new one.

    As the lights dimmed and the doors closed yesterday in the House of Representatives for the last time this year, President Clinton had been formally accused of high crimes and misdemeanors, Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) had resigned, and Republicans and Democrats were left to ponder their hostility and wonder if, this time, they had finally gone over the line so far that they could never come back.

    They had shed serious rhetorical blood many times before: during the government shutdown, wrestling with Speaker Newt Gingrich's (R-Ga.) ethics problems, and in countless, vicious floor fights over the years. But it had never been this bad.

    "It's hard, it's hard," sighed Rep. David E. Skaggs (D-Colo.), who has been a leader in trying to dim the partisan rancor that has dominated the House in recent years. "It's more important to look beyond this. Nobody knows whether this place is going to be pulled apart so much that we can't do our business."

    Prospects looked bleak. In a House divided, everybody had other priorities. As soon as the last vote was cast, the Democrats headed to the White House to show solidarity with Clinton, leaving their outrage lying heavily in the Capitol.

    The Republicans headed to the basement to start picking a new chieftain: "It's a little bit frightening," said Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.). "We're picking our leaders on the basis of what they've done in the past, not what they're going to do in the future. I just wish this scorched-earth policy could be abandoned."

    Perhaps it can be. As they hastened to attend their particular disasters, several members of both parties took solace from Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt's (D-Mo.) final speech, when he urged members to "step back from the abyss" and "begin a new politics of respect and fairness and decency."

    How might that be done?

    It might be easy. "The people elected us to get the people's business done," said Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.). "I'm hoping we'll go home for a couple of weeks and come back and get started."

    Others thought it would be harder, but not that hard: "We're like a hedge," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.). "Trim the edges and it'll grow back bigger and stronger." But he cautioned that "character development is not an easy process."

    Not easy at all, said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.). Perhaps impossible: "This institution does not have the tools to put itself back together very easily," Obey said. "You used to have a lot of cross-aisle friendships . . . but now we get to know each other only as the instruments of political debate. The restraint is largely missing."

    Obey, like his good friend Livingston, is one of the House's dwindling number of "institutionalists," men and women of both parties who do not denigrate public service or insult Congress or believe in term limits.

    History suggests that there will be some damping down of animosity, but no lasting peace treaty. Democrats, as they have said during weeks of debate and recrimination over Clinton's transgressions, believe the Republicans are held hostage by right-wing zealots who prevent reasonable people – like Livingston – from surviving.

    Republicans, as they have emphasized in their turn, believe Democrats are take-no-prisoners cynics willing to mortgage their souls for a chance to score rhetorical points or pick up a few seats in an election.

    In this atmosphere, the distrust is so deep-seated and enduring that there are only downticks in the steady rise of animosity, and the events of recent days simply dramatized the canyon that separates the two parties: "These are not just hard feelings," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.). "There's raw feelings. It's going to take a long, long time to heal, and there's not going to be any love fest."

    For many, yesterday was perhaps the worst in memory: "Right now this place is dysfunctional," Obey said about an hour before the impeachment vote. "Who knows who will be destroyed the next day. We are on the short route to chaos." Many members saw it coming. Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.), spent part of the debate walking the aisles on the other side of the House, chatting with Democrats and making an effort to rekindle a semblance of comity.

    He suggested members might want to move up their bipartisan retreat to Hershey, Pa., an idea proposed by Skaggs and first tried in 1996 to coax fellowship from his fractious colleagues. On second thought, though, Hulshof said: "We may need to delay it because nerves are so frayed."

    Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) suggested a "mutual commitment on the part of the leaders of both sides," but offered only vague suggestions on how this might be accomplished: "Maybe somebody needs to come talk to us."

    One thing Lewis said he might do is suggest that the Georgia delegation begin meeting regularly, a practice terminated sometime around the beginning of 1995 when Gingrich took over as speaker.

    Bilbray suggested that in the spirit of Hershey, anyone who stepped out of line during debate would receive two chocolate kisses from the floor leader of the opposing party "to sweeten them up."

    But however it was done, said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), "We've got to put an end to this cycle of recrimination. There are too many hard feelings, on both sides."

    If there was a silver lining, it was to be found in the very abyss where members now found themselves: "Frankly, a lot of the Republican leaders are starting to understand some of the pain and hurt Democrats have been feeling with all of these efforts to force leaders out of office," said Rep. Steve R. Rothman (D-N.J.). Livingston's resignation "may convince the most partisan of us to work together for the good of the people."

    Indeed, despite chants by some of "You resign! You resign!" when Livingston first stepped to the microphone to announce his departure, Democrats from Gephardt to Obey and deep into the rank and file expressed outrage at what they saw as Livingston's ouster.

    Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), a fierce partisan who barely knows Livingston, said he thinks the GOP's internecine war forced the speaker-designate to resign. "I think it's outrageous that they're driving him out." Watt suggested a bipartisan effort to draft a new speaker, "and I wouldn't mind if it was Livingston. The nation would respond in a spectacular fashion to that."

    This might be a pipe dream, and yet many of the conciliatory voices on the House's day of acrid partisanship were from members of racial minorities such as Watt: "People who have been minorities all their lives have the capacity to talk about barriers to understanding" and to do something about them.

    "There is opportunity in diversity," he said. "If nothing else can be said, these are different times, and you need different times to encourage independent thought."

    But in the end members from both sides took refuge in the mundane. Following Livingston's resignation on the House floor, when the House sat in shocked silence, there was a moment when someone could have stepped forward and offered words of condolence or camaraderie.

    Instead, Republican leaders, including Livingston, contrasted their chieftain's resignation with Clinton's failure to resign, then lapsed back into polemics on morality and why Clinton was guilty.

    Democrats responded with invective, as in Serrano's case, or with tedious denunciations of the case against the president. By the time Gephardt stepped to the lectern, it was way too late to make a permanent change, and Gephardt's effort simply added a pleasant coda to another venomous debate. Both sides had other appointments.

    All day "I felt like I was going to cry, but the tears wouldn't come out of my eyes," said Lewis when it was over. "This is a bad day. Very bad for the country."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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