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Who's Playing Politics?

HEREWITH a few words about spring break, filibusters, and playing politics.

When members of Congress returned home for Easter recess this week, President Clinton took an opportunity on Tuesday to tweak Senate Republicans for holding up his jobs package. Their use of the filibuster was "just more gridlock," he said. Noting that he would work on an amended (read compromise) proposal to address "legitimate expressed objections" he added that when Congress returns, it would become apparent "whether Republicans are committed to putting people back to work or are just playing politics ."

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Let us pause here to note that we support Mr. Clinton's package, even if a compromise reduces the amount spent on it.

But look who has been playing politics. Contrarian though he may be, when Sen. Richard Shelby (D) of Alabama consistently and vocally opposed Clinton's budget package as not doing enough to cut the deficit - reflecting the sentiment of voters back home - the White House reportedly moved 900 National Aeronautics and Space Administration jobs from Alabama to Texas.

And why didn't the president's party - whose Senate majority falls short of the votes needed for cloture - succeed in breaking the filibuster over the jobs bill? Because it lost potential allies among moderate Republicans; they were frustrated by parliamentary maneuverings by top Democrats, including Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, who tried to fend off amendments to the jobs package.

This is not gridlock, Clinton and Ross Perot notwithstanding. Gridlock occurs when the volume of traffic moving through a system from all directions is so great that it blocks the system and everything grinds to a halt.

The jobs-bill dispute has less to do with gridlock and more to do with the politics of inclusion. When the opposition proposes alternatives and tries to get them a fair hearing - as it did on the budget and now the jobs package - top Democrats have chosen to cry "politics" and play a brand of hardball that undercuts Clinton's reputation as a conciliator.

His inaugural call for Americans to come together to solve the nation's problems should also be extended to those living and working inside the Beltway. If the roles were reversed - if the GOP held the White House, the House of Representatives, and a less-than-cloture-vote majority in the Senate, Senate Democrats would use many of the same tactics Republicans are using.

Economic differences aside, Republicans have used the filibuster to signal that while they are the party out of power, they do not intend to roll over and keep silent on matters they deem important. Nor should they.

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Clinton's first 100 days will largely set the tone for the remainder of his term; they have nearly passed. During the Easter break, White House strategists and congressional Democrats would do well to remind themselves that voters elected Republicans too and that while a majority of voters backed change, only a plurality backed Clinton's version. Those remaining voices should be heard.

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