WASHINGTON — In contrast to the spirit of confrontation that permeated much of the last two years, Republicans returned to power in Congress on Tuesday offering chastened pledges to work closely with President Clinton and congressional Democrats.
"I think we have a unique opportunity," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told reporters shortly before the 105th Congress convened. "We have opportunities this year to do some good things. It won't be evident for a month or two or three or four or five."
Lott's session-opening comments are emblematic of the less militant role that he and Senate Republicans are expected to assume this congressional term.
While the ceremonial opening of the 105th Congress followed the traditional script, it lacked the revolutionary rhetoric and marathon work schedule of the 1995 GOP political crusade, which eventually foundered as public opinion polls showed that most Americans disapproved of the party's tactics and many elements of its agenda.
Absent too is the zealous activism of a huge freshman class that entered Washington two years ago brimming with enthusiasm. The first-year Republican lawmakers this time are a smaller, less dynamic and more understated group, said Nelson Polsby, a political scientist and director of the Center for Intergovernmental Affairs at UC Berkeley. "They're not announcing themselves to do anything important."
A chastened Gingrich, who bounded into the House leadership two years ago claiming a mandate to end Democratic rule and social policies, barely retained his leadership post this year.
Following the noon call to order and a roll-call vote of House members, Gingrich accepted his narrow reelection with a contrite apology to his colleagues.
"To the degree I was too brash, too self-confident or too pushy, I apologize," Gingrich said somberly during his address.
"To whatever degree in any way that I brought controversy or inappropriate attention to the House, I apologize," he said. "It is my intention to do everything I can to work with every member of this Congress."
While Lott praised Gingrich as "a visionary" and "a very thoughtful leader," he said that GOP leadership roles and responsibilities are certain to change from the last session--even if the leaders themselves are the same.
"He will have a very key role, [but] it may be a different role," Lott said of Gingrich's second term as speaker.
Despite all the talk of bipartisanship, Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., said that cooperation is unlikely in the early days of the 105th.
He noted that the Senate will begin an investigation into illegal campaign contributions to the Democratic Party and that the House will conduct a hearing about the Gingrich ethics report, followed two weeks later by a vote on Gingrich's punishment.
Indeed, after the festivities ended and the smiles faded from the House floor and gallery, legislators plunged into debate over the timing of the vote on punishment. By a vote of 223 to 205, Republicans beat back a Democrat request to allow the Ethics Committee to extend its work beyond the Jan. 21 deadline for its investigation of Gingrich.
For their part, Democrats talked up their legislative agenda, which includes campaign finance reform, a balanced budget by 2002, and education and health care issues. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said that he "felt very good about the goodwill, optimism and hope" he saw Tuesday. "I look forward to a productive session."
Lott and the GOP leadership have charted a course that will allow the administration to take the lead on most sensitive issues, such as balancing the budget, campaign finance reform and tax cuts.
"We are anxiously awaiting the president's proposals on a number of issues," Lott said. "It's important that he provide leadership and show some courage in addressing some of the issues that were not adequately addressed in the last session. So we're going to be looking very carefully at his budget proposal."
Lott predicted that he and other GOP senators will assume more leadership responsibilities if the president fails to offer proposals in a timely fashion.
Noting that during the last two years the House was "the hotbed of activity," Lott said: "I think maybe this time that we'll return to a more normal situation where sometime the Senate will lead, sometime the House will lead. Sometime, you know, Sen. Daschle and I will be in the forefront, sometime it'll be the speaker and [House Minority Leader Richard A.] Gephardt."
Special correspondent Adrienne Schwisow contributed to this story.