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Logjam Augurs Partisan Strife for Congress

NEWS ANALYSIS

November 12, 1997|JANET HOOK and RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Seventy-five House Democrats joined Republicans to oppose Clinton's education tests--a defection that weakened Clinton's hand in the final negotiations with the GOP. Then the president suffered an almost unprecedented repudiation this week as about 80% of House Democrats indicated that they would side with Gephardt in opposing Clinton's bid for expedited fast-track trade negotiating authority. That forced the president to pull the legislation.

On both the testing and trade issues, Clinton maintained support from a majority of Senate Democrats. But many analysts believe that the sequential revolts in the House foreshadow a growing conflict between liberals and centrist "New Democrats" over the party's direction as the campaign of 2000--expected to feature a showdown between Gephardt and Vice President Al Gore--approaches.

"The [fast-track trade authorization] vote will embolden the left-labor-liberal elements of the party, and rightly so," said Teixeira. "But Al From and the gang at the [centrist] Democratic Leadership Council aren't going to see this as a signal to soften their policies."

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Though overshadowed by the Democrats' implosion over trade, Republicans also revealed significant fractures during the session's last days. Since the budget deal, the dominant force in the GOP has been the conservative demand for more confrontation with Clinton. Yet the session's final hours raised questions about whether Republicans have the votes to consistently pass a confrontational conservative agenda. "Clearly the answer is no, as of today," said Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Santa Clara).

Last week, the GOP suffered a humiliating reversal in the House when 35 Republicans joined with Democrats to kill a proposal for a nationwide test of school vouchers--an initiative that Republican strategists had hoped would be a cornerstone of their 1998 campaign agenda. Likewise, conservatives were stunned last week when four Republicans joined with Democrats in the House Judiciary Committee to kill a GOP proposal to roll back federal affirmative action programs--which also had been expected to stand as a pillar of the GOP election-year agenda.

Even when Republicans held together to pass legislation allowing parents to set aside tax-free accounts to pay for public or private school costs, they lacked the votes to break a Democratic filibuster in the Senate.

In two distinct respects, public opinion reinforces the trend toward stalemate. On the one hand, general public satisfaction with the country's direction diminishes the demand for bold action from Washington, noted Mark Penn, Clinton's pollster. Moreover, polls show that, although the budget deal broadly reflected a public consensus for smaller, but still active, government, there is less public agreement on potential follow-up initiatives, such as rewriting the tax code or reforming entitlements.

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In this political climate, about all Congress can reasonably hope to accomplish in the coming year is action on issues that lack partisan edge, like a big highway bill or possible legislation to codify the tobacco settlement. With Clinton now conceding the issue, IRS reform may fall into this category, too.

The prospect for additional activity may depend on whether the Republican majority decides that it needs more legislative accomplishments as the election approaches. When the GOP made that calculation late last summer, it sprang a series of agreements with Clinton on such issues as reforming welfare and raising the minimum wage.

"We're going to have a chaotic year," said a Senate GOP aide.

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