Congress steers clear (it hopes) of gridlock

Big changes: Power sharing in Senate, new leaders in House point to a historic change in course.

January 09, 2001

IN AN institution where change can be glacial, last week's developments in Congress were dramatic. They signal a desire by House and Senate leaders to set aside rigid partisanship in hopes of averting gridlock.

The Senate's action was historic. Members approved a power-sharing arrangement that reflects the 50-50 split of November's election outcome. Democrats gain nearly equal clout with Republicans on committees, with the power to move their own bills to the floor.

Majority Leader Trent Lott called it an exercise in "nonpartisanship." Centrists from both parties will now play key roles in shaping legislation. Committee chairmen must reach across party lines to form winning coalitions.

The Senate's focus could shift from partisan, divisive legislation toward more pragmatic solutions on such issues as Social Security, tax cuts, Medicare and education. As Mr. Lott noted, this is in line with President-elect George W. Bush's stated commitment to bring about results, not gridlock.

Republican leaders in the House haven't shown as much willingness to meet Democrats halfway. But they did follow through on a 1995 pledge to impose term limits on committee chairmen.

This was one of the sensible reforms of the Newt Gingrich era designed to avoid concentrating power in the hands of a few senior members. Thirteen new chairmen -- not selected on the basis of seniority -- bring different approaches and priorities to their jobs.

Many of them are moderates more interested in workable legislation than ideological victories. That is typified by the new Ways and Means chairman, Bill Thomas of California, who is far more open to bipartisanship than his rival for the job, right-wing conservative Philip M. Crane of Illinois.

Sadly, GOP leaders also pandered to members who had raised millions of dollars from corporations and individuals for the party. Two of them were rewarded with chairmanships. That's a dangerous step. It could eventually corrupt the selection process.

For now, though, this change signals a move toward openness by Speaker Dennis Hastert. Like Mr. Lott, his Senate counterpart, Mr. Hastert veered away from Republicans who want to ram through the GOP agenda. It can't be done in the new Congress, and it's encouraging to see these leaders now recognize that fact.

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