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Partisan Game Plan Takes Hold As Lawmakers Gear Up for Fall

Election-year politicking takes on bitter edge and public disapproves

LIKE the coming and going of the tide, partisan feelings run predictably high at the end of each legislative session as members of Congress prepare for the November elections.

Trouble is, members of Congress also typically save the biggest and toughest legislative projects for the end of the session, creating a volatile mix of high partisanship and perils-of-Pauline lawmaking.

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But this year, say members, their aides, and other Capitol Hill observers, the level of partisanship has reached dizzying heights.

Take the crime bill, which will pass the Senate barely if at all this week after a tough battle last weekend to get it through the House. Just last November, the Senate passed a version of the multiyear, multibillion dollar anticrime package by a vote of 94 to 5. Now the question is whether supporters can muster 60 Senate votes to defeat an expected ``point of order'' that Republicans could have raised last November but declined to. The point of order would deal with the decision to establish a trust fund to pay for the crime bill.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia says it would be ``an amazing display of hypocrisy'' for opponents to raise a point of order on a trust fund now.

``There's no question, it's a very clear game plan developing that's very, very partisan between now and the elections,'' says a Republican banking lobbyist.

This lobbyist sees a three-pronged approach to hurting Democrats in the fall elections: Discredit the president by any means possible. Go further by discrediting the president's wife, an unprecedented phenomenon, but one that she has opened herself up to by being so publicly involved in policymaking. Do whatever possible to bring down programs.

Gentle chiding

In a Monitor breakfast yesterday, House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington gently chided some House Republicans for their partisan, anti-Clinton strategies.

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``There's a segment of the Republican Party that is essentially pragmatic, I would say more philosophical than political,'' said the Speaker. ``There is an element - I'm not trying to say things that sound like a slam, I think they're true - there are elements in the Republican Party in the House whose primary attitude toward a lot of these issues is a political one, how to defeat Bill Clinton, how to embarrass Bill Clinton.

``And there's enormous anger, enormous anger directed at the Republican moderates who joined with us on the crime bill.''

One thing that could check the attack side of the Republican caucus in Congress, epitomized by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, is public opinion. Recent polling data show typically low public confidence has fallen still further, and that the public blames Republicans for gridlock.

A CNN poll taken Aug. 17 and 18 shows that 65 percent of the public disapproves of the job Congress is doing and only 25 percent approve, a gap that hasn't been that wide in at least four years.

Clinton is not without guilt in the partisanship game.

Though he has promised bipartisanship, he has at times passed major legislation with little or no Republican support - perhaps fearing that Republican input could dilute legislation or cost him needed liberal Democratic support. The big exception was passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which passed on the backs of Republicans.

In the next Congress, Clinton likely will not have the luxury of bypassing Republicans, with expected Republican gains in both houses. And when Congressman Gingrich becomes the top House Republican, as expected, Democrats can expect ``a loyal opposition under his direction [that] will be less loyal and more opposition,'' says Speaker Foley.

Two more years

One thing is certain: Democrats will hold the presidency for the next two years.

``I think Republicans tend to be more partisan when there is not a Republican president in office,'' says Foley. ``When there is a Republican president in office there's a kind of forced cooperation on issue after issue between the Democratic leadership and the Republican president. And when the Republican comes into agreement there tends to be a bridge of cooperation with the Republican leadership in the House.''

Another factor, he continues, is that House Republicans have been out of the majority for decades, while Republicans held the Senate in the early 1980s. ``That changes, to some extent, the character of the two parties,'' says Foley.

``But, you know, there's a tendency for us to sometimes exaggerate the degree of partisanship,'' he said.

Still, he acknowledges a need to find ways to communicate better between the parties.

``There is a tendency for us to deal with the Republican Party to the exclusion of their leadership, a feeling that that's how you do it. I think conversations and discussions are welcome by Republicans; we would be glad to do that. It depends again on what the issue is.''

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