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Democratic Gridlock Bodes Ill for November Elections : Politics: Internal divisions are blocking key bills. The party’s midterm prospects may be hurt as a result.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Liberal Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Oakland) is likely to support the House Democratic leadership’s health care plan but hasn’t decided to back the massive crime bill now stalled on the brink of final passage. Moderate Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) supports the crime bill but opposes the leadership’s health care measure.

At the moment, House Democratic leaders don’t count enough votes to pass either the health care legislation Dellums wants or the crime bill McCurdy supports. That, in a nutshell, is the Democrats’ dilemma as they approach a midterm election some party leaders fear could deteriorate into a rout.

On not only health care and crime, but also welfare and campaign finance reform, shifting coalitions of disaffected Democrats in both houses are blocking Congress from completing action on issues that could bolster the standing of President Clinton and the party in November.

On each of these issues, individual Democrats are trying to avoid positions that could prove controversial at home or are defending interests they consider critical to their political survival. But party strategists are increasingly concerned that the cumulative effect of these decisions is to reinforce disenchantment with Congress and weaken the party’s midterm prospects as a whole.

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To students of game theory, it is a classic dilemma: By seeking to fortify their positions as individuals, Democrats may be cutting the ground from beneath themselves as a group.

“Right now, the image that’s being conveyed to the American people is that we can’t get the job done,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “Unfortunately, that fits in with the American public’s preconception of Congress--and that will hurt incumbents.”

To Republicans, already expecting a rich harvest of new congressional seats in November, the self-imposed Democratic gridlock is a windblown bounty. “It’s so nuts, you cannot believe it will continue all the way through October,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “If it does--wow! Then they will face monumental losses.”

Democratic congressional leaders are cautiously optimistic that nervous rank-and-file legislators will ultimately accept the power of that logic. This week, they’re hoping to complete final action on the long-delayed crime bill in the House, begin floor debate on health care reform in the Senate, and perhaps make a breakthrough on campaign finance legislation long immobilized in a House-Senate conference committee.

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“Today it looks really screwy,” acknowledged Tom O’Donnell, chief of staff for House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). “But we’ve got more time, and I think we will get a lot of this stuff done.”

Given the intensity of public concern about crime, Democrats are likely to obtain final approval this month for the long-delayed $33-billion crime bill--though even that would put the bill on Clinton’s desk almost half a year later than the White House once hoped. But on health care, campaign finance, and welfare reform, the prospects and timetable are murkier.

The long, enervating struggles over these issues raise questions about the capacity of Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, to surmount not only Republican opposition but their own differences in the interest of assembling a stronger record for November.

“It’s a very serious problem,” said Democratic pollster Alan Secrest, who works with many party centrists. “Politics is said to be the art of compromise. But there are some pretty serious stakes here if this Congress can’t come to a consensus and bring to a close some of these issues.”

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Almost every imaginable permutation of internal division has confounded Democratic efforts to finish action on these four high-visibility initiatives.

On health care, the principal problem is the party’s right wing. In both houses, resistance from moderate and conservative Democrats to a requirement that employers help pay for their workers’ health insurance poses a huge threat to Clinton’s signature promise: guaranteed health coverage for all Americans.

On welfare reform, the principal problem is the party’s left wing. Angry resistance from House liberals to Clinton’s plan during recent House Ways and Means Committee hearings has virtually obliterated the always-slim prospects that Congress would deal with the issue this year, congressional leaders say.

Further delay is likely, even though many Democrats are eager to run on the issue this fall. And probable Republican gains in November could leave liberals facing an even more inhospitable legislative climate on welfare reform next year.

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On crime, the problem comes from both wings. Last week, House leaders were forced to postpone final consideration of the President’s crime bill because an incongruous alliance of liberal and conservative Democrats refused to support a key procedural vote needed to bring the measure to the floor.

On the left, liberals led by the Congressional Black Caucus are angry that House-Senate conferees dropped the so-called racial justice provision that would allow defendants to challenge death sentences as racially discriminatory. On the right, conservative Democrats, under pressure from the National Rifle Assn., are fighting a last-ditch attempt to remove from the legislation a ban on 19 types of assault-style weapons. As they recessed for the weekend, House leaders were optimistic they could assemble the needed votes, but were still 15 to 20 short.

On campaign finance, the problem is institutional, not ideological. House Democrats depend heavily on campaign contributions from political action committees, so they are resisting Senate efforts to cut the amount PACs can give to candidates. Senate Democrats depend heavily on large donations from individuals, so they are resisting House proposals to cap the share of funds a candidate can raise from that source.

Both sides are “scared that any change in the current law, in the system that they have mastered, will disadvantage them,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.

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The chaos reflects both short-range and long-term trends. It testifies to the reluctance of many Democrats to embrace ideas associated with Clinton. It also illustrates the declining ability of congressional and party leaders to herd legislators behind a common agenda. Said one House Democratic aide trying to round up votes on the crime bill: “No one . . . will exact any punishment (for opposing the party). There are no sticks left. There are some carrots, but there is no punishment.”

But on each of these issues, the biggest problem Democrats face could be another dilemma addressed by game theorists: While the risks of inaction are potentially formidable, they are less immediate and concentrated than the risks of action.

For instance, political operatives say, individual legislators know precisely what to expect if they cross the NRA by backing the assault-weapon ban, or anger the National Federation of Independent Business by supporting mandatory employer financing of health care benefits.

“What goes on in the back of a member’s mind is the 30-second ad that says: ‘They want to take away your choice of a doctor,’ ‘They want to take away your gun,’ ” said an aide to a moderate Democrat who hasn’t decided to back either the health care or crime bills.

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It is more difficult to quantify the political threat to individual Democrats if Congress cannot achieve significant progress on crime or health care. But, as Mellman noted, if deadlock further intensifies public disenchantment with Clinton and Congress, that undoubtedly will sweep away some more Democratic incumbents in November--though it is impossible to predict which ones.

“That is a much less visible threat,” Mellman said. “Nobody is looking down a barrel of gun, saying: ‘It’s pointed at my head if we don’t get something done.’ But there will be people who wake up this November shocked that they lost, who thought it could never happen to them, but who could not overcome the climate.”


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