Overcoming bipartisan heartburn in the capital

Governing from the middle neither natural nor easy for party leaders in Congress

Posted: Monday, October 08, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Meeting with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, top House Republicans pressed hard for the White House to issue executive orders designed to make air travel safer, rather than accept legislation federalizing airport workers.

Bill Clinton would have acted on his own ''just like that,'' said the GOP whip, Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas.

The session over, White House officials quickly scrubbed Mineta's next appointment -- a meeting with Senate Republicans and Democrats eagerly awaiting the very proposal House leaders had opposed so forcefully.

The events last Thursday not only slowed the progress of a bill deemed critical to the nation's recovery from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

They underscored the broader challenge of governing in a bipartisan fashion, even at a time of national emergency when President Bush and top House and Senate leaders of both parties have pledged to do so.

''I said on the floor the other day that bipartisanship is abnormal, and it is,'' House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said in a recent interview, recalling earlier comments that disagreement is healthy in a democracy.

It's a point that Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., has made to restive members of his party, and one that others readily second.

''I believe the spirit of bipartisanship can easily be overrated,'' Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in an interview. Blunt, the deputy GOP whip, was among those in the closed-door session with Mineta, where he, DeLay and others pressed their case. Other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the session.

Still, Congress has worked with unusual civility since Sept. 11 and Bush's White House breakfasts with Congress' four top leaders have become a Tuesday fixture.

Lawmakers approved $40 billion for recovery efforts, endorsed military action in retaliation for the terrorist strike and provided a $15 billion bailout for the airline industry.

Agreement was sealed on an overall limit on federal spending for the new year, an issue that once seemed likely to spark weeks or months of politically charged jockeying.

A stopgap spending bill also went through, utterly without controversy, to tide the government over through the beginning of the budget year that began Oct. 1.

Aides and lawmakers in both parties say progress will inevitably slow in the coming weeks as the circle of involved lawmakers expands.

Additionally, they say, the trust necessary for smooth compromising is absent.

That is particularly true in the House, where Hastert and Gephardt spoke to each other only when necessary before the attacks forced them together.

''Bipartisanship is going very well,'' said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y. ''However, with bipartisanship being new to both sides, both sides are looking to see it's turning out the way they want.''

Still ahead in the next few weeks are bills to stimulate the economy, boost airline security and give law enforcement new tools to combat terrorism and money laundering. Each has moved ahead quickly thus far, yet each carries its own set of challenges -- none more so than the stimulus package.

Bush's call Friday for a $60 billion tax cut -- with no more spending -- to stimulate the economy pleased Republicans and irritated Democrats.

Even so, his pointed omission of a capital gains tax cut from his list of recommendations was a gesture to Democrats.

House Republicans are rebelling against the airline security bill. Two weeks earlier, Democrats vented their anger with Gephardt for agreeing to support an airline bailout bill without any provisos helping laid-off workers.

''I spent five hours taking some of the heat'' in closed-door caucuses, he recalled. The tension was finally broken when Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., told a joke making the point that Democrats were attacking the wrong man.

Senate Republicans, still adjusting to their minority status, have expressed frustration with Bush's support for expanded unemployment benefits and his move toward federalizing airline security workers.

The president heard one group of GOP lawmakers Thursday night in a gripe session on the White House's Truman Balcony. Bipartisanship, they warned, was leading to bigger government and too much spending.

Among Senate Democrats, there was unhappiness over the lack of worker relief provisions in the airline bailout. And when Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., agreed to an overall spending level, he undercut yearlong efforts by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to force fresh concessions from Bush on education funding.

EDITOR'S NOTE: David Espo is the AP's chief congressional correspondent.

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