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For the Next Congress, Compromise May Be the Watchword

Election: After partisan rhetoric subsides, public will expect lawmakers to heal wounds created by the dispute.


WASHINGTON — Amid the heated partisan rhetoric surrounding the vote counting in Florida, cooler heads know that much of the American public eventually will expect Republicans and Democrats in Washington to at least try to heal the wounds created by the presidential election dispute.

With both sides now firmly entrenched in their support of either Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore, the time for conciliation seems not yet at hand. And matters could only get more inflamed if Congress or the Florida Legislature intervenes in an attempt to decide which candidate won the state that will tip the balance in the electoral college.

But members of Congress from both parties, while loyally espousing the Bush or Gore lines this weekend, also are talking about the need for bipartisanship after an election that will leave the House and Senate almost evenly split and the presidency still in the balance.

One potential arena for compromise is the lame-duck session of Congress due to convene Dec. 5 to finish critical year-end legislation, including spending bills for several government agencies. Congress and President Clinton could set a productive tone if they are able to cut deals, or at least come to an amicable arrangement that postpones some controversies until the next administration takes power.

Another venue is the presidential transition: Whoever becomes president-elect surely will face pressure to cross party lines in making Cabinet appointments.

One figure who knows about abrupt transitions amid partisan cross-fire is House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). He rose to power during the House impeachment debate two years ago, after one House speaker and then a speaker-designate resigned in rapid succession.

Hastert's philosophy, according to spokesman John Feehery, "was to get back to work and do the work of the nation. That helps to heal some wounds. Obviously some of these things take time."

Feehery added: "Whoever the president is has to work in a bipartisan way. The best way to heal wounds is to get stuff done."

Democrats claim the Republican-led House has, in fact, done little during two years on Capitol Hill marked by intense partisan warfare.

But it was significant, nonetheless, that Hastert met with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the minority leader, after the Nov. 7 election that handed the GOP an apparent 221-212 majority. It was said to be the first face-to-face session for the two leaders in months. Whether such meetings will become regular, productive events or are merely for show is unclear.

Rare 50-50 Split Possible in Senate

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate faces even more pressure for bipartisan cooperation. There, the election results may produce a 50-50 split between the two parties, depending on the outcome of the presidential contest. If Vice President Gore wins, the Connecticut Senate seat now held by Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman would in all likelihood go to a Republican, and the GOP would hold a 51-49 edge. In any event, Republicans seem assured of control.

What they are not assured of is cooperation from Democrats. And so, acknowledged Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the situation will require "some give on both sides"--flexibility that has been in short supply in the last two years.

Whether lawmakers will recognize as legitimate a president from the opposing party could, of course, cast a long shadow over Washington in the next two years. Some Republican members who accuse Gore of trying to "steal" the election could refuse to give him legitimacy if he wins.

Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, the fourth-ranking House Republican, issued a news release the day after the election congratulating Texas Gov. Bush as "president-elect." On Saturday, with the election unresolved nearly three weeks later, Watts said he remains convinced he was right.

But Watts said that, whatever happens, the loser should "lose graciously" and the winner should "win with humility." And, significantly, Watts said bipartisanship could produce important legislation on prescription drug benefits, managed health care reform and tax relief if the two parties can work together.

"We all need to have a little bit of humility," Watts said.

Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands, a leader among California's House Republicans, said he is "disconcerted" by the level of rhetoric from both sides. "An awful lot of rancor appears to have developed." Lewis said he hopes for a cooling-off period. "We've got a responsibility to govern."

Appointments an Area for Compromise

Among Democrats, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California--known as an unwavering partisan--said that, although she believes Gore won the election, she could recognize either candidate as legitimate when the next president takes office Jan. 20.

"I'm not going to spend a lot of time grieving [if Gore loses]," Boxer said. "That doesn't get you anywhere."

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