Self-interest may prompt cooperation Legislation: Renewed legislative gridlock would undermine public confidence in both President Clinton and the GOP-controlled Congress.

Election 1996

November 06, 1996|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The prospects for cooperation between President Clinton and Congress in his second term are clouded as a result of the Republican Party's continued control of the Senate and likely retention of the House.

But his impressive re-election will likely be a moderating force on his Republican opposition in Congress and the probable outgrowth a continuation of the tenuous but relatively productive relationship that existed between them in the last year.

Unlike in 1994, when the GOP takeover of Congress for the first time in 40 years produced a revolutionary fervor among House conservatives and a determination to bury the last vestiges of New Deal liberalism, Republicans' mood this time around is likely to be more cautious.

After congressional Republicans were outmaneuvered by Clinton in the budget battle that saw them blamed for twice shutting down the government, they concentrated on demonstrating achievement rather than obstruction, and it paid off yesterday.

Bruce Reed, a presidential assistant for policy development, said last night: "No matter how the congressional elections turn out, we're going to need to work across party lines and govern from the center.

"I suspect the next two years will be more like the last few months of this year than the time before. Both sides should take from this election a clear message that Americans want us to roll up our sleeves and work together to get things done."

The congressional Republicans' switch from revolution to legislative accomplishment, if continued, could mean a more accommodating attitude on their part as they seek to retain public confidence. That is, as long as Clinton does not spring on them any grandly liberal schemes like his sweeping -- and rejected -- health care reform proposal of 1993.

So the behavior of the Republicans in Congress may well depend on which Bill Clinton confronts them over the next two years: the New Democrat who has proclaimed that "the era of big government is over" or a lame duck president who has no more elections to win and thus can act on his more-liberal inclinations.

Judging from the past, the Bill Clinton of the second term likely will more closely resemble the former than the latter, pressing relatively modest public investments in job training, education and environmental protection that he talked about in his fall campaign.

But he can be expected in the course of seeking a balanced budget by the year 2002 to continue to resist what he sees as excessive Republican cutbacks in the social welfare fabric, particularly in the major entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

His greatest legislative battles with Republicans are likely to be in his promised effort to achieve changes in welfare reform legislation enacted this year and signed by him amid howls of protest from liberal Democrats.

The Democrats argued that Clinton broke faith with the strongest party traditions to provide a government safety net under the young and the poor, and they will be pushing him hard to keep his word about protecting them.

Republicans regard the welfare reform package that gives the governmental obligation in this field back to the states as a core element in their philosophy of government. They can be expected to dig in their heels against any effort to roll back what they pushed through Congress this year.

Even more difficult for Clinton might be the determination of the GOP leadership, in the Senate at least, to press for intensified congressional investigations of alleged ethical misconduct in his administration's first term.

Revelations of the Democratic soliciting of campaign contributions from foreign sources, stonewalled by Clinton through the fall campaign, are certain to be the subject of Republican scrutiny on Capitol Hill after January.

The president may attempt, as he did during the campaign, to counter criticism of the flood of foreign contributions to the Democrats by pressing for enactment of campaign finance reforms that he proposed. Public outrage against campaign practices this year could lead finally to bipartisan reform, but not without much partisan wrangling.

Clinton was criticized throughout his re-election campaign for failing to provide any grand and specific road map of the legislative route he intended to follow across his much-mentioned "bridge into the 21st century." Absent was any call for a another "First 100 Days" of accomplishment that marked his 1992 campaign rhetoric, and the proposals he did spell out were mostly modest ones, such as a $10,000 tax deduction and $1,500 tax credit for college tuition, and two years of community college education available to all.

Two realities -- the lack of much discretionary spending in the budget he has pledged to balance and continued Republican control of the Senate and probably the House -- are factors that might force him to trim his legislative objectives while concentrating on defending traditional constituencies against conservative assaults.

Over the whole equation looms the danger of the condition that )) can undermine public confidence in both Clinton and Congress: renewed legislative gridlock.

Both sides learned in Clinton's first term that voters value cooperation over confrontation. Clinton paid a price for the lack of legislative progress in the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, and the Republicans paid another for overzealousness that led to more gridlock in the year thereafter.

Over the past year, Clinton and congressional Republicans alike came to see cooperation as being to mutual political advantage.

That view offers the best hope for legislative achievement over the next two years, albeit of modest proportions.

Pub Date: 11/06/96

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