Monday, November 13, 2000

Voters gave Congress little guidance

By Derrick DePledge and Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WASHINGTON — With the presidential election in turmoil and Republicans with a fragile grasp on Congress, the challenge for lawmakers is to interpret the conflicting word of the people.

        They could look at the divided vote and choose clarity, gridlock or something in the middle.

        Voters kept Republicans in power in the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, but with shriveled majorities that will make it tricky to move important legislation without the help of Democrats.

        The next president will al so be under tremendous pressure to embrace compromise and leave the chaos of the campaign behind.

        “The nation is obviously divided and we have a Congress that is divided as well,” said Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind. “We can either slug it out for the next two years, or we can try to find compromise.”

        Neither party can take the election results as vindication because the vote was so close. But the outcome of the presidential campaign will shift momentum to the party that captures the White House, because the president has the authority to shape foreign policy, the federal government and the balance of the federal courts.

        A victory by Texas Gov. George W. Bush would give Republicans the White House and Congress for the first time since the mid-1950s, a tantalizing opportunity for conservatives to set the country's political agenda.

        Vice President Al Gore, if

        he should take the presidency, would provide Democrats with leverage in Congress because he could veto Republican proposals and use the White House as a stage to advance the party's causes.

        “I think, initially, whoever is elected will have a more difficult time than he otherwise would have had,” said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a domestic policy adviser to Mr. Bush. “That means reaching out. That means looking at the interests of all Americans.

        “But I don't think this cripples the president.”

Common issues first
               Mr. Portman said Congress should immediately proceed on issues that both sides generally agreed on during the campaign. Lawmakers, he said, should grant prescription drug coverage to poor seniors on Medicare, work to extend the solvency of Social Security, and repeal the estate tax and the marriage penalty.

        Although ballots are still being counted in some states, and recounts are expected in others, Democrats will probably whittle the Republican majority in the House.

        The situation is even closer in the Senate. If Sen. Slade Gorton holds off former Internet software executive Maria Cantwell in Washington state, Republicans would have a 51-49 majority.

        If Mr. Gorton were to lose, the chamber would be deadlocked for the first time since the 1950s and the new vice president — as the Senate's presiding officer — would be called upon to break ties.

Senate nearly even
               Under a Bush administration, Dick Cheney, his vice president, would preside over the Senate. In a Gore presidency, Joseph Lieberman would be the vice president and the presiding officer in the Senate but would have to relinquish his Connecticut Senate seat. Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, a Republican, would likely appoint a Republican as Mr. Lieberman's replacement, tipping the balance back toward Republicans.

        No matter the outlook, the chasm will be even deeper than it was in this Congress, where disagreements prevented lawmakers from completing a budget on time or resolving major policy questions.

        Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, said neither candidate has much choice over strategy. That has less to do with the narrow split in Congress than it does with an expectation by many taxpayers that elected officials should get along.

        The next president should spend the “substantial part of his first year in office developing bipartisanship,” said Mr. Boehner, who is vice chairman of the House Administration Committee, which oversees the day-to-day management of the House.

        Not surprisingly, the West Ches ter Republican believes Mr. Bush would do a better job of building consensus than Mr. Gore.

        “Given the scar tissue that (Mr. Gore) has developed over the years, it's going to be tougher for him to do so,” Mr. Boehner said.

        Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said if Bush were elected, Republicans would have enough of a majority to push legislation past the Democrats.

        “It could be done without a significant amount of Democrat input,” he said.

        But he acknowledged that taxpayers want consensus.

        In an “ideal world,” he said, the leaders of both parties could craft policy agreements that would have the support of the rank-and-file. “This hasn't worked very well in the past,” Mr. Chabot said.

A test of governing
               A Bush presidency and a Republican Congress would test the ability of conservatives to govern. President Clinton had a Democratic Congress for the first two years of his presidency but failed to sustain the advantage through the next election cycle, when angry voters turned Congress over to Republicans for the first time in 40 years.

        “The culture of the place has to change and it's up to the president to change it,” said Peter Schramm, a political science professor at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio.

        “This is really both an opportunity and a danger for the Republican Party,” he said. “This is the first time in a long time they've had this chance.”

        Some lawmakers may benefit from the tension. Like Mr. Hill, Rep. Ken Lucas, D-Ky., is among a group of conservative Democrats known as the “Blue Dogs” who concentrate on debt reduction and other fiscal controls. As centrists, they are likely to be courted by the White House and both parties to help settle differences.

        “If members of Congress were smart, they'd realize that the people of this country are tired of all the divisiveness and want results,” he said. “My sense is things will get done.”

        But some veteran lawmakers see a different landscape.

        “Sometimes no decision is better than a bad decision,” said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio. “There is not likely to be major change until the American people make a decision. They didn't do it this time. Maintaining the status quo is what they want.

        “My bottom line is that I will do what I can to get things done in a bipartisan manner,” he said. “But I will be firm on the issues that need to be addressed for the working middle class, whether it's HMO reform, a trade bill or a prescription drug plan for seniors.

        “I will not compromise just to say that we have.”

        Pamela Brogan contributed to this report.


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