Clinton should get fast start with Congress ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- The immediate assumption in the wake of Bill Clinton's sweeping electoral-vote triumph is that the congressional gridlock about which President Bush so mournfully complained in his losing effort has been broken.

Much depends, however, on what the new president asks for, and how he goes about asking.

The previous Democratic president -- Jimmy Carter in 1977 -- also came in with a Democratic-controlled Congress but he alienated its leaders and members almost at once by rejecting their pork-barrel bid for new water projects, thus setting a tone of confrontation from which he never fully recovered.

Bill Clinton, like Carter, ran as a Washington outsider. But in 12 years as governor of Arkansas and a founder of the Democratic Leadership Council, he, unlike Carter, knows his way through the power corridors of Capitol Hill and is on a first-name basis with the Democratic hierarchy there.

He figures to be much more sure-footed in his early dealings with the legislative branch.

Although the Democrats lost a handful of House seats on election night, they did pick up at least one Senate seat (pending a special election in North Dakota next month) and will retain a healthy majority in both houses with which to greet President Clinton on Inauguration Day.

Furthermore, Bush's government-by-veto has left an accumulation of Democratic-supported legislation -- on issues ranging from family leave and abortion rights to voter-registration and campaign finance reform -- that can quickly be reintroduced and placed on a high-speed conveyor belt to the White House.

For his part, Clinton said often in his successful campaign that he intended to emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt's famed "first 100 days" of 1933, when he swiftly sent up an array of economic fix-it proposals that came to be known as the New Deal.

The new president-elect knows his history -- that the best chance to get what you want from Congress is when the election results are still ringing in the ears of its members.

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, on election night, said he and House Speaker Tom Foley stood ready to work with the new president on his agenda for change, starting with proposals for economic recovery but also including deficit reduction and health care.

At the same time, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole served notice that he doesn't intend to lie down and roll over. He pointedly disputed that Clinton had won a "mandate" Tuesday night, arguing that the Arkansas governor's 43 percent vote in a three-way race meant a majority of voters disagreed with him -- conveniently assuming that all voters for Ross Perot were against him.

In fact, according to the exit polls, about half of those surveyed said that had Perot not been on the ballot, they would have voted for Clinton, making him a majority winner.

At any rate, Clinton will have no trouble hitting the ground running on Jan. 20. His campaign was notably issue-oriented, and he had the essentials of his agenda for governing in hand well before his party nominated him in New York mid-July.

It prominently includes, in addition to the top-priority matters listed by Mitchell, revamping of the current college loan program by enabling students to pay off tuition with military or community service -- an idea that often drew the loudest cheers on the campaign trail.

Clinton had hoped to have the congressional leadership formally endorse his legislative agenda before the fall campaign started, so that he could go to the voters and say, "When you break the congressional gridlock by electing a Democratic president, here is what we in partnership will get done quickly."

But the leaders were wary of signing on before they saw the fine print, and some Clinton aides questioned the political wisdom of having their candidate associated too closely with a Congress widely criticized for fiscal abuses -- even by Clinton himself.

All that, however, is behind both sides now, and after 12 years of Republican rule, at least half of which featured legislative gridlock, Clinton and the Democratic congressional leaders are hungry for action. And there seems to be nothing blocking their way -- for openers, anyway.

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