Bush must foster season of good will

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2000

WASHINGTON -- 'Tis the season to be cordial -- Republicans to Democrats, President-elect Bush to all parties in the name of healing the divisions of a presidential election almost as evenly divided as the 50-50 Senate it also produced.

It is time for political good will, for bipartisanship, for a holiday from gridlock. In most transitions to a new presidency that mood lasts at least through inauguration day, sometimes longer.

In 2001, the Senate split may fracture it sooner. Democrats are demanding a share of power to go with their half of the seats. In an unprecedented situation, Vice President Al Gore can break ties in favor of the Democrats from Jan. 3 until Jan. 20, Vice President Dick Cheney will have the decisive vote for the Republicans after that.

For Bush, with no visible mandate from the voters after the closest presidential election in 124 years, won with one electoral vote to spare while Gore led him in the popular vote, appealing to Democrats in Congress is not an option, it is essential.

He can't get major legislation passed without them; bare GOP majorities won't do, even when party lines hold solidly, as seldom happens. It takes 60 votes to force action in the Senate.

Even without an evenly split Senate -- the first since 1881, the second ever -- and a House in which Republicans hold only a five-vote edge, the promises of harmony and cooperation in Congress are no easier to keep than any ambitious New Year's resolution. The pledges are always made, and almost always forgotten when it is time to do business.

After Bush met with congressional leaders on Monday, he said it was the beginning of a relationship he intends to build.

''I hope they realize that this isn't a single photo opportunity,'' he said. Bush said he wants to have a say but he listens and respects other opinions.

Democratic leaders responded in kind, saying they want to work with Bush and with congressional Republicans. ''It's an opportunity for us to wipe the slate clean, to begin anew,'' said Sen. Tom Daschle.

Naming the high command of a GOP administration he has promised will include Democrats, Bush said Wednesday that he will concentrate on ''what's right for America, not what's right for a particular party,'' hoping to convince voters and blocs that opposed his election that he is intent on being a good president for them, too.

Eventually, getting anything enacted beyond the bare essentials to keep the government functioning is going to require compromise. But Bush is not talking that way; to do so now it would tip his hand when it is time to negotiate. It also would erode his support among conservative Republicans in Congress and he can't risk their votes.

His agenda hasn't changed, although it does not come with the backing he had said he would take to Congress, a message from the voters. Not out of this divided election. What he gets done is going to take persuasion because political prodding won't do.

An early example: Bush is promoting his across-the-board tax cut, which Democrats generally oppose, as a step against the signs he sees of a possible economic slump.

Any new president, whatever his mandate, gets a political honeymoon at the start, but it can be brief, and the mood doesn't mean he can get bills passed, or even get his Cabinet fully and quickly confirmed.

For President Clinton, the opening chapter was marred by the feud over gays in the military, and when his first two nominees for attorney general had to withdraw for failure to pay taxes on household help. When President Ford succeeded to office in Watergate's wake, the honeymoon was over when he pardoned the resigned Richard M. Nixon. George Bush, father of the president-elect, saw his first choice for secretary of defense rejected by the Senate; that led to his choice of then-Rep. Cheney for the Pentagon.

That President Bush made his inaugural address in 1989 a summons to cooperation, saying ''A new breeze is blowing and the old bipartisanship must be made new again.''

''This is the age of the offered hand,'' he said, and turned to reach out to the leaders of the Democratic Congress to dramatize his words. They said they would reciprocate. But soon there was stalemate, then gridlock.

This President-elect Bush has a narrowly Republican Congress but a task no less challenging as he seeks to deliver on his trademark pledge to get things done as a uniter, not a divider.

Walter R. Mears has reported on Washington and national politics for The Associated Press for more than 35 years.

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