The 103rd: No Excuses

January 06, 1993

With the 103rd Congress duly sworn and assembled Democrats are on the verge of an era of no excuses. When Bill Clinton takes his presidential oath of office Jan. 20, their party will control both the legislative and executive branches of government for the first time in a dozen years. If there is "gridlock" or "stalemate" in Washington, the Democrats will no -- longer be able to blame it on a Republican in the White House.

As every politician knows, this is not a unmixed blessing. One party's responsibility to govern is the other party's freedom to oppose. The last time the Democrats were in control at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the voters threw Jimmy Carter out of office after only one term.

This time Democrats would prefer an experience closer to the heady launching of the Great Society under Lyndon Johnson. Then historic measures strengthening civil rights and fighting poverty came in flood tide -- a success story later sullied by Vietnam. Whether Mr. Clinton has the will and the wallet to match the Johnson experience is a subject of some debate on the banks of the Potomac. But his agenda is ambitious, and the nation is impatient to see things done.

The new Congress, like the incoming Clinton Cabinet, looks more like America than any of its predecessors. The number of women has shot up to 54 from 31, of blacks to 39 from 26 and of Hispanics to 20 from 14. The Senate now includes its first black woman in history and its first American Indian in 60 years. The biggest freshman class since the election of 1948 is full of ginger and less than awed by a institution that has besmirched itself in the eyes of the American people.

If there is one dynamic already apparent in the 103rd, it is the liberalism of the Democratic caucus and the conservatism of the Republican conference when compared to the titular leadership of their respective parties. Mr. Clinton will be under the gun from his party faithful not if he proposes too much but if he calls for too little. The president-elect is a moderate, a Southerner, a governor. He has to balance liberal demands for job-creating pump-priming against the need for long-term action to control runaway deficits. Sen. Robert Dole and Rep. Bob Michel, the Republican leaders of the Senate and House, are mainstreamers harassed by ultra-conservatives eager for a fight.

Mr. Clinton will have to quickly revamp President Bush's last budget, out today, as he prepares the economic jump-start program he promised during the campaign. Steadily rising deficit figures and a slow recovery will limit his options. His long-awaited health-care proposals will be crucial in any measurement of his record. Foreign policy imperatives will force him to spend political capital.

No matter that it happens every two years, the convening of a new Congress is always a happy occasion, one filled with optimism and derring-do. This year, after 12 years of divided government, the atmosphere is especially challenging.

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