For Republican Conference Vice Chair Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.), some of the small victories at the bipartisan retreat in Hershey, Pa., over the weekend came on the dance floor, when House Judiciary Committee Democrat Melvin Watt (D-N.C.) cradled the infant daughter of impeachment "manager" Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.) in his arms.

"I hope someone got a picture of that," Fowler said in an interview on her way home yesterday. "Mel obviously has a great way with babies."

Just as two foes during the impeachment of President Clinton could mend their relations during the three-day session, Fowler found herself laughing Saturday night as she participated in line dancing across from Del. Robert Underwood (D-Guam) and beside Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and his wife, Jane.

"It's letting those barriers down and laughing together," she explained. "There's a real need just to get to know each other."

When they weren't dancing, the roughly 190 House Republicans and Democrats who had traveled with their families to Hershey discussed how to restore a sense of civility to Congress. And while no one was willing to suggest that bipartisanship would suddenly dominate the everyday workings of the House, several lawmakers said yesterday they saw the retreat as a first step in repairing the damage wrought by four years of intense political battle.

Rep. Thomas C. Sawyer (D-Ohio), one of the lead organizers, said the session was "much more specific" than the 1997 retreat, and participants already have discussed undertaking several concrete initiatives to foster comity. These include forming an oversight committee to set standards for how the majority treats the minority, developing a more predictable schedule, holding twice monthly bipartisan policy breakfasts and family dinners in the Capitol and convening regular joint leadership meetings.

"People were much more open, vulnerable, and allowed themselves to take greater risks," Sawyer said, adding that the spouses were particularly influential in explaining how hurtful partisan attacks can be to them and their children. "It allows us to see how others feel those kinds of discomfort, and leads us to build bonds through those common experiences."

Ironically, lawmakers said the fact that the House could change hands in 2000 made both parties more willing to establish a lasting code of conduct.

"Everybody knows we're in close competition, and the likelihood is we're going to stay like that," Gephardt said. "At least for the future we can start by getting some standards that whoever is in the majority might follow."

Putting these ideals into practice, according to Republican Policy Committee Chairman Christopher Cox (Calif.), is a matter of perseverance: "It's a little like shaving. You have to get up and do it every day."

Several lawmakers quoted the speech Nobel laureate John Hume delivered Friday night, in which he said, "Difference is the essence of humanity," as an example of how they intend to defend their respective political philosophies even as they aim to foster warmer personal relationships.

"The problems are deep and the disagreements are fundamental," Gephardt said. "It is the way you manage conflict, the level of civility and respect as you go through the debate over differences that has been lost."

For freshman Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the retreat provided a chance to meet GOP leaders like Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Tex.) and participate in a group session in which he compared impeachment to a kind of "crack cocaine" to which Republicans were addicted and that Democrats eagerly supplied. DeLay did not directly respond to the comment, but Crowley said he now feels free to approach the whip in the future.

"There's no question that when I see Tom DeLay on the floor I'm going to say hello to him, and he's going to know who I am," he said.