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Hill Honeymoon for Bush Beginning Before the Vows

<i> Richard E. Cohen covers Congress for the National Journal</i>

An odd change is in process on Capitol Hill--the view of lawmakers toward George Bush. Before the election, Democrats were deeply skeptical about Bush being able to do business with them and angry about the campaign he was running. Now, they speak in increasingly positive terms about their ability to govern with him. And Republicans who ran a largely unified campaign behind Bush have already begun to go their own way.

The shifts in political mood have been especially significant for Democrats, who have comfortable majorities in both the House and Senate but know it would be a mistake to take Bush for granted. In the wake of his issueless campaign, many in Congress expected that they could make Bush deal with them on their own turf. The Democrats’ feistiness was enhanced by what Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) refers to as Bush’s “bikini coattails"--his near-total failure on Election Day to translate personal success into other GOP victories and the Democrats’ own ability to survive the shortcomings of presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis.

Since then, however, Democratic defiance has dissolved. Some lawmakers have moved to a stance of respectful waiting, while others have taken steps that the Bush team might consider political burden-sharing. The first camp, which includes new Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), says that it will await the President-elect’s recommendations with an open mind but with doubts that he can achieve his goals, especially on the all-pervasive issue of taming the federal budget deficit.

Other key Democrats have been making statements that could allow Bush to blame them for forcing him to abandon his “no new taxes” pledge. House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) has made clear in populist rhetoric to colleagues and reporters that he favors tax increases targeting the wealthy. Incoming House Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Monterey) has long advocated a comprehensive approach, including added revenues, to the deficit problem. And influential House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) this week embraced a hefty hike in the federal gasoline tax as a way to cut the federal deficit.

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Many Democrats, regardless of their views, like the tone Bush has been setting even though they have not seen the details. “I have become much more optimistic about action on the budget,” said Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), a political neighbor and ally of Wright. Rep. Dennis E. Eckart (D-Ohio), another party stalwart, said this week: “George Bush has made all the right moves since the election. We are waiting for a honeymoon with him.” Bush may have received another boost in dealing with Congress when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev announced that he was cutting Soviet troop strength by 500,000, a step that could ease Pentagon budget pressure.

The whirlwind of across-the-board meetings by Bush in the month since his election has underscored major differences in approach from the Reagan years. Bush has shown an apparent desire to be more engaged in the details and strategy of handling issues and more willing to consider opposing viewpoints.

This pragmatism highlights dramatic political differences in Washington at the start of the two presidencies. In 1981, Republicans controlled the Senate and worked with a coalition of conservative House Democrats to pass Reagan’s spending and tax-cut agenda. This time, Democrats will find it difficult--procedurally, politically and individually--to sit on the sidelines. Another contrast is that Democrats, who were shellshocked after their 1980 debacle, are more confident about having regained their political footing.

Many Democrats will surely want Bush to eat some crow before they join forces with him on the budget. A senior Democratic aide gleefully predicted an extended round of finger-pointing to Bush’s lips when he breaks his campaign promise. Yet many Capitol Hill players foresee a strong possibility that, by next summer, a bipartisan budget agreement will have been struck.

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If that happens, many Republicans might abandon Bush’s ship. Conservative leader Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said that he and his allies might be willing to support modest increases in federal user fees and the like but that they will steadfastly oppose anything that common sense dictates is a new tax. House Republicans issued a warning to Bush this week about the limits of bipartisanship when they elected several partisan activists to their leadership team and rejected more conciliatory members. The winners included Californian Duncan L. Hunter of Coronado; a prominent loser was Californian Robert J. Lagomarsino of Ojai.

In the Senate, Bush’s personal dealings with Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) remain uneasy and potentially troublesome. Mitchell, meanwhile, may need time to establish leadership and make promised changes in Senate operations.

After the budget issue, the most difficult problem on the 1989 congressional agenda will be the bailout of savings-and-loans institutions, estimated to cost as much as $100 billion. Bipartisanship is likely because of the magnitude of the problem; it is also likely because some congressional Democrats have been accused of being too close to savings-and-loan industry wrongdoers.

Clean-air legislation is another long-standing contentious issue that could be ripe for action, and an arena where Bush may hope to show his environmental stripes. Proposals to issue huge fines for violators are in the works; they could also help lower the budget deficit.

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Congressional Democrats will offer proposals that will draw Republican opposition or force alternative ideas. The Democrats’ social agenda will include child-care, a minimum-wage increase and liberalized leave policies for employees facing medical problems at home. Watch, too, for wide-ranging hearings on the growing practice of leveraged buyouts in the financial community; many Democrats are alarmed about the concentration of economic power.

The outlook remains sufficiently uncertain to warrant a healthy dose of skepticism and patience before the various sides come together on key issues. Even though some of the new players are taking a positive attitude (Bush and Mitchell are tennis buddies), it often takes time to establish a working relationship. But if the political picture is darkest before the dawn, a winter sun may start making brief appearances over the Capitol in the next few weeks.


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