Posted on November 18, 1996 in Washington Watch

The 1996 elections have produced a divided government. Voters re-elected Bill Clinton to a second term in the White House and gave Republicans control of the Congress for another two years.

In attempting to read the message sent by voters in this election, some leaders in both parties have determined that it is in the best interest of the President and the Congress to avoid the deadlock that would result from partisan wrangling and to instead work on compromise solutions to the nation’s problems.

The partisan political warfare that characterized the two years that followed the Republican landslide victory in the 1994 Congressional elections only served to enhance voter alienation and fear of government. Polls show that voter confidence in Congress is at an all time low and that voter turnout in this year’s election was the lowest (49%) since the election of 1924.

The self-proclaimed revolution led by Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich went too far and too fast. Public opinion deemed Gingrich too radical especially after he forced a long-term shut-down of the federal government in 1995 in an effort to force the White House to accept Republican budget proposals.

While Republicans retain control of the Congress (having lost only about ten seats to the Democrats) and Gingrich remains Republican leader, there is even unease within his own party about his leadership. In fact, many Republican members of Congress sought to distance themselves from Gingrich in their re-election campaigns.

At the same time the White House, while pleased with the President’s re-election, is somewhat dismayed by his failure to win more than 50% of the popular vote and the overall low voter turnout. This lack of a clear mandate coupled with lingering unease over several unresolved scandals will make the Administration careful not to overreach in its relationship with Congress.

It was this reading of the national mood that brought the Congressional leadership to the White House this week in an effort to seek some common ground in approaches to the 1997 budget. Both sides left the meeting pledging to cooperate. President Clinton noted, “we’re in this boat together and we have to paddle it together.” Gingrich commented, “we’ll seek to find every possible common ground to work with him for the betterment of America.”

It is not only the message of the elections that have contributed to this sense of bi-partisanship. Continuing improvements in the economy will make budget compromises somewhat easier—revenues are expected to increase in 1997 and costs in some areas (like health care) have actually decreased.

Both Republican and Democratic leaders would like to put aside the stormy elections and the heady confrontations of 1995, at least for the time being. A better model, they say, were the past two months of the 1996 legislative calendar when bi-partisan compromises were found enabling Congress to pass and the White House to approve legislation on welfare reform, an increase in the minimum wage, and health care reform.

In agreeing to work toward a balanced budget (but not the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution sought by Republicans), the President is hoping to continue this bi-partisan cooperation into the next year. Bi-partisan support will also be sought in the areas of campaign finance reform, Medicare reform, and some tax relief, particularly for middle-income families. The Administration believes that a balanced budget is possible with some tax credits for education, but they reject (and believe that the voters also rejected) the more dramatic 15% tax cut proposed by Bob Dole, as that would then require too drastic cuts in social programs in order to preserve a balanced budget.

For at least the next year this effort at bi-partisanship will continue. It will leave its mark in a number of areas, but it will be tested in several areas as well.

In the area of Presidential appointments, for example, the President will be careful to recognize that his choices for top Administration posts will have to be voted on by a Republican controlled Congress.

The President’s choice of Erskine Bowles, a North Carolina businessman, to serve as his Chief-of-Staff is considered to be sign of his efforts to build a moderate White House that will work with the new Congress. Bowles, who has a reputation as a political moderate and a tough administrator, will apparently have a strong hand in selecting the rest of the Administration’s staff.

Similarly, the President has indicated that in his search for the new Cabinet Members he is hoping to include some Republicans in order to build “a bi-partisan Cabinet.”

With at least seven Cabinet vacancies to fill, the President does not want to provoke a prolonged fight in the Senate over nominees deemed too controversial by Republicans. The White House recalls only too well the repeated mistakes made in 1993 when nominees were withdrawn after embarrassing revelations. With Republicans now in control, they can not afford blunders in 1997.

Bi-partisanship will also be sought in some areas of foreign policy and this may result in tying the Administration’s hands in the short-run. The President has been willing in the past to take risks in controversial situations, evidenced by U.S. involvement in Haiti and in Bosnia. But his ability to win Congressional support will soon be tested over his desire to re-commit U.S. forces to the NATO forces in Bosnia and the Canadian-led relief mission to Zaire. It is unlikely that the Republican-led Congress will be any more disposed to endorse new foreign aid programs than the last Congress. Nor will this Congress be likely to support any challenge to Israel, if one were to be made.

In general, in the area of foreign affairs the President may test Congress especially in those areas where the Presidents have traditionally maintained their prerogatives to act unilaterally—committing troops and providing diplomatic leadership—but he will not boldly challenge Congress particularly in areas where Congress will reign supreme—i.e. its control over the purse strings.

While efforts at bi-partisan cooperation will be made by leadership on both sides, several partisan pitfalls remain.

There remains deep Republican anger at the outcome of the November election. Many still feel that the Democrats unfairly attacked the Republican stance on Medicare. And there is still more Republican anger directed personally at Bill Clinton for what they view as the “ethical failings” of his administration.

It is noteworthy that New York Republican Senator Al D’Amato, who led the bitter and long hearings in the Whitewater controversy, recently stated that in the spirit of bi-partisanship he would not resume his hearings in 1997. Some commentators noted that D’Amato’s motives may have been driven by the fact that his popularity in New York has dropped to an all time low and that since he does face reelection in 1998 he would not benefit from any further attacks on the President. But immediately following D’Amato’s announcement, House Republicans challenged that D’Amato did not speak for them and they would hold hearings on their own in the House chamber. Some Republicans are also threatening new hearings on Democratic National Committee (DNC) fundraising practices, and are calling for independent investigations in other areas where they have found what they term “unethical behavior” in the White House.

And while Republican leader Gingrich has his own ethics problems (he awaits reports on various campaign finance investigations by a House Ethics Committee and an independent prosecutor), he is being challenged by some fellow Republicans as well as Democrats who feel that his unpopularity and his “ethics cloud” have impaired his ability to provide leadership.

The going will be tough during the next year. The November election did not resolve many of the critical issues facing the country. It did chasten some leaders in both parties who now realize that an effort at bi-partisan cooperation may be necessary and even desirable.

But the wounds of the election have not healed, nor has the pull of partisan ideas lessened for many.

The test of Republican and Democratic leadership in the coming months will be found in their ability to prove to the nation that a divided government does not preclude the possibility of compromise in the search for unified solutions.

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