Congress moves partisan bickering to back room

As members of Congress confront a host of legislative initiatives to halt terrorism, discussion of issues that divide them have, for now, moved largely behind closed doors.

Rather than noisily air their disagreements in public, as was the order of the day before terrorists attacked New York and Washington last week, Democrats and Republicans now say they want to minimize public disputes to maintain an image of unity.

"This is a very different day than it was a week ago," said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.).

When House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) heard that Republicans wanted to cut the capital gains tax to help pump up the dragging economy, for example, he did something that has been rare in the fractious House of Representatives. Rather than scheduling a press conference, Gephardt quietly went to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Saturday to remind him that Democrats reject what has long been a key tenet of the GOP--cutting taxes on real estate, stock and other investment gains.

Gephardt compared the situation to "poking the sleeping bear of partisanship with a sharp stick," and urged restraint.

Lawmakers say they would prefer to work matters out privately or defer them if they can't avoid a bitter disagreement on the floor.

"We're saying, let's not try to score partisan points," said assistant Senate Republican Leader Don Nickles of Oklahoma. "Let's try to do what's right."

Although President Bush has directed his Cabinet secretaries to continue to work with Congress on his domestic agenda, little appears to be under way. A prescription drug benefit under Medicare and HMO reform, for example, seem likely to be set aside for now.

Whether public or private, the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans have not disappeared.

The two sides have never seen eye to eye on economic prescriptions. In developing a comprehensive energy plan, they have been at loggerheads for months over drilling for oil and natural gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. On defense, they have disagreed about a missile defense shield.

"For the moment, Congress is going to be stepping very gingerly around any issue that has the potential to be controversial," said Marshall Wittmann, a senior analyst at the conservative Hudson Institute.

For example, Senate Democrats agreed this week to drop efforts that would have required the Bush administration to get congressional approval to spend money for missile defense testing.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he hopes Congress also can walk away from its fight over arctic drilling, but still pass an energy bill to reduce American reliance on Middle East oil.

On the economy, Democrats and Republicans met simultaneously with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and other economists Wednesday in an effort to find some consensus for a stimulus package.

Negotiations also are under way on appropriations bills required to operate the federal government after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Just more than a week ago, that protracted budget fight threatened to keep Congress in session until Christmas with no compromise in sight.

Senate GOP Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he and Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) hope to sort out legislative controversies before bills go to the floor, or delay them.

Last week, Congress followed that game plan, producing a resolution authorizing Bush to use military force and approving $40 billion in emergency spending to clean up New York and the Pentagon.

Now, the top of the agenda includes counterterrorism legislation, an airline bailout, an economic stimulus package and the fiscal 2002 budget.

How long the bipartisan, bicameral cooperation continues may well depend upon the president's leadership, said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution think tank.

"Bush is going to determine the extent to which the effort at national unity, which I think has been genuine thus far, will extend over a significant period of time," Mann said. "If he uses this extraordinary situation to advance a controversial partisan agenda, then he's planting the seeds for the destruction of national unity."

On the political front, the two parties have suspended all fundraising, direct mail and telemarketing efforts, with plans to review that decision around Oct. 1.