When to Hold and When to Fold

September 21, 1992

That "gridlocked" Congress scorned by George Bush at the Republican National Convention is quite adept at meshing its political tactics with those of Democrat Bill Clinton. Like the card shark in the country-western song, it "knows when to hold 'em and knows when to fold 'em."

In its latest moves, the Democratic leadership has folded its plans to enact appropriations bills totaling more than White House budget requests, thus denying the Republicans ammunition for their big-spender charges, and it has gone along with the president's insistence that 20 rather than 15 B-2 bombers be built, thus bolstering Mr. Clinton's show of toughness on defense.

At the same time, Mitchell, Foley & Co. are holding on to cards designed to embarrass the president: The family leave bill is tailored to trump the GOP family-values pitch, and a nine-month moratorium on nuclear testing corners the president on a popular arms control issue. The cable TV re-regulation bill is aimed at pleasing consumers and could lead to Mr. Bush's first veto defeat.

Mr. Bush is not without a few high cards. He played one of them by notifying Congress of his intention to sign the pending North American Free Trade Treaty. He has joked that Mr. Clinton must be getting "straddle sores" by backing the treaty in principle but placating protectionists by quibbling over jobs and environmental provisions.

Oddly enough, many things the Democratic Congress is doing in mid-campaign are helping to enact substantive White House initiatives without helping the president in his uphill battle for re-election. Example: The Senate approved $2.1 billion for the space station over liberal objections. Maryland's Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a certified liberal up for election and a champion of the Goddard Space Flight Center, led the winning side, saying, "We are going to generate jobs today and jobs tomorrow."

Jobs were a bipartisan objective, too, as the legislative and executive branches found common cause in providing disaster relief to Florida, Louisiana and Hawaii, in working on a landmark energy bill shorn of Democratic veto-bait and in getting behind a $22.7 billion housing bill.

The Democrats also decided not to go to the mat with the president on the confirmation of Edward Earl Carnes Jr. for a judgeship on the Eleventh Circuit Court, despite the vehement objections of the civil rights establishment. "The decision," said Congressional Quarterly, "was a statement on crime and race in a tense election year in which no one can afford to appear soft on crime and candidates are steering clear of racial justice issues."

Political maneuvering will continue until adjournment in the next two or three weeks. At this stage, it appears that Mr. Bush's hope to be Harry Truman reincarnated, fighting a "do-nothing" Congress, is being thwarted by a politically savvy "do just enough" Congress.

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