Hopes high as Congress convenes Members are eager to get things done

January 06, 1993|By Karen Hosler and John Fairhall | Karen Hosler and John Fairhall,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- While acknowledging that the nation' problems will require painful solutions, newly-seated members of Congress savored the prospect yesterday that they might finally be able to get something -- anything -- done.

Two years of total gridlock and 12 of divided government have produced in Congress such a thirst for accomplishment it nearly overcomes the fear that the job ahead may be too difficult and the responsibility too great.

"This is the first time I've ever served under a Democratic president," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a six-term veteran and Democrat from New York who said yesterday he felt like one of the scores of giddy freshman posing for pictures with their families and constituents.

"I'd rather face this challenge [of accomplishing something] than the gridlock and the deadlock, or spend my time on superficial issues like we did all last year," he said.

At yesterday's festive swearing-in ceremonies, 110 new House members and 13 new senators officially joined a government that in less than three weeks will be headed by Democrat Bill Clinton.

Mr. Clinton brings with him the seemingly impossible agenda of eliminating the deficit, cutting taxes for the middle class and reforming the health care system.

But Republicans as well as Democrats found reason to celebrate at least the prospect for substantive action.

"If he's going to be a [centrist] president, he's going to need a lot of Republican votes," said Rep. Newt Gingrich, the House Republican whip, who advocates a tough bargaining stance for his troops.

"If he's going to be a liberal president, he won't need us, but it would be political suicide for him in the country. So we're willing to wait and see."

But Rep. Eva Clayton, a North Carolina Democrat elected by her peers to serve as president of the largest freshman class since 1948, said she knew this binge of euphoria was not without a potential hangover.

Walking across the Capitol grounds with her husband and four-year-old son to meet 1,000 supporters from back home was heady stuff. In a quieter moment, though, she said she and her colleagues are awed by the complexity of the must-solve problems they face, and they know that "gridlock can't be used as a excuse any more."

In dealing with their only items of controversial business for the day, the Senate turned down petitions asking that Republicans Bob Packwood and Paul Coverdell not be seated because their elections are in dispute.

But Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, announced that the two were being sworn in in a manner that would allow them to be removed later without formal impeachment proceedings.

Mr. Packwood, a six-term incumbent, is accused of defrauding the voters of Oregon because he reportedly denied making improper sexual advances to staff members before the election that he admitted after his election. Mr. Coverdell's victory election in a Georgia run-off is being challenged on constitutional grounds.

Mr. Mitchell's statement, which was supported by Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, represented a partial victory for the women's groups who are working to pressure Mr. Packwood out of office.

"I think that Senator Mitchell handled it in the most judicious way," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, who had been asked to make a similar statement herself if Mr. Mitchell did not.

"To take any other action wouldn't be fair to the complainants or the defendants," she said.

Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, which had led a last-minute lobbying campaign against the seating of Mr. Packwood, said: "We're very gratified" that the Senate leaders took the issue seriously and decided to "give a clear message that they're not going to try to sweep this aside."

But she said her group and others would continue applying grass-roots pressure to get a "public hearing" on the allegations against Mr. Packwood.

In the House, a controversial proposal that would allow delegates from Washington, D.C., and the non-state territories to vote when the House is amending legislation was significantly weakened after a challenge from conservative Democrats.

Under the change formally adopted yesterday, if the votes of the five delegates would affect the outcome of an amendment, any member may ask that the issue be decided again without their participation. In effect, they may vote unless their vote counts.

"This is a real embarrassment for the Democratic leadership," said Rep. Fred Grandy, a Republican from Iowa.

"This is a real sign that they are going to need the help of Republicans when it comes to important issues."

The Capitol welcomed the most diverse group of lawmakers ever to assemble in its imposing chambers.

Freshman Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado took the oath of office in his trademark string tie and ponytail.

As the only American Indian in the Senate, one of his priorities is enactment of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Five new female members, several in bright purple and red suits, also helped break the overwhelmingly white, male monotony of the Senate.

"We've opened a crack in the glass ceiling, and the crack is only a part of what is to come," said Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who helped bring the Senate's total number of women to six of 100.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington told an emotional gathering of nearly 200 women supporters yesterday afternoon: "When I was sworn in, all of you were sworn in, too."

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