House Democratic leaders to visit their 64 new members for party checkup

November 08, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- House Democratic leaders, hoping the nex Congress will be known more for substance than gridlock, are moving quickly to get their new troops in line and to pledge support to their party's chief executive.

At the same time, House leaders expect that legislation vetoed by President Bush -- such as a family leave bill -- will find quick approval in the first few months of next year. "The difference being that the president will sign them," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash.

Mr. Foley and his leadership colleagues will set out today on an unprecedented post-election tour to Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta to meet with the newly elected 64 Democrats.

Some lawmakers said the effort is to make sure the new party members, some of whom ran anti-Congress, reform campaigns, will be loyal to their leaders. But House leaders brushed aside such talk.

"I am confident that the party loyalty of the new members [will produce] results that will be of great value to President Clinton," said Rep. Vic Fazio of California, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I really believe that we will have a real, solid party-line vote."

Democrats will have 259 House seats, a loss of nine, while the number of Republicans will rise from 166 to 175 in the 103rd Congress. One independent sits in the House.

"I think [the new members] tend to be national Democrats. I think the great bulk of them would be classified as progressive," Mr. Foley said in an interview.

Both men said the sessions are designed rather as a "sounding (( board" and a discussion of stepped-up organization for leadership posts and committee assignments.

"We want to talk to members about how quickly we're going to organize . . . so we'll be ready to do business," Mr. Foley said, noting that veteran lawmakers and others have complained about slowness and gridlock in the House.

Mr. Foley said he hopes to meet with Mr. Clinton in the coming weeks to discuss an agenda for the next Congress. He said he expects an economics package to emerge first, with a jobs package, deficit reduction and health care reforms.

"It's going to take a little longer than 100 days," the House speaker said, referring to the legislative target date made famous by Franklin D. Roosevelt and embraced by Mr. Clinton. But he expects the concepts of these plans to be forged in that time.

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said Friday he expects both the Congress and Mr. Clinton to agree early next year on a tax plan to boost the economy that will include a capital-gains tax cut and an increase in taxes paid by the wealthy.

Meanwhile, all 19 House Democratic committee chairmen late last week pledged their cooperation in a letter to Gov. Clinton.

"Too many important issues have been deferred for far too long. It is time to move ahead, and we welcome your leadership in creating an agenda for the next four years . . .," the group wrote. "We pledge our cooperation to you and the American people toward that end."

Yet it remains to be seen how the Democratic president will work with some of these strong-willed lawmakers who signed the letter, such as Rep. Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, head of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

And on the Senate side, Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia is opposed to the presidential line-item veto, a tool Mr. Clinton would like to receive from Congress.

Some political observers wonder whether Mr. Clinton's fate on Capitol Hill could follow the grueling path of the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter -- also a Southern governor -- whose relations with House leaders quickly deteriorated.

But many in Congress quickly dismissed that political parallel, with one saying that Mr. Carter was a "non-political personality," while Mr. Clinton proved adept at working, trading and negotiating with lawmakers in Arkansas.

"I think he will have a very positive working relationship with the new Congress. . . . He's a hands-on governor," said Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. of Arkansas. "He certainly won't try to be dictatorial."

Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington-based political analyst, predicted that with the voters' eagerness for change and the estimated 110 new members in Congress, Mr. Clinton has the ability to set the agenda.

"I think the Hill won't fight him," said Mr. Rothenberg, who expects quick action on the economy.

But Republican leaders are quick to point out that their membership was elected on a platform different from Mr. Clinton's.

Republicans "all ran on a platform of reducing the interference of government in the private sector, holding down taxes and holding down the growth and expenditures of government," said Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"I think they have a very clear mandate to do that," he said, noting that Mr. Clinton's 43 percent of the vote puts him behind the 46 percent Gov. Michael Dukakis captured in 1988. "I don't believe Clinton has a mandate," he said.

Indeed a survey of new members by U.S. News & World Report found a sharp contrast in the goals of new members. Democratic lawmakers place health-care reform and a jobs program at the top of their agenda, according to the survey, while their Republican counterparts would make cutting the deficit their first or second priority.

In an attempt to head off trouble with GOP members, Representative Anthony said he suggested to the president-elect's transition team that Mr. Clinton meet with Republican lawmakers.

Mr. Clinton could also have trouble down the road with his own party over the stickier questions of health-care reform and tax increases, said Mr. Rothenberg.

More liberal members, such as newly-elected Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and the record number of minorities and women in the House, could press for higher tax increases to fund government programs.

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