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The New(t) Congress

A WEEK after the midterm elections the emotions - for the GOP, ``high fives'' all around; for Democrats, hangdog looks - are subsiding. Just what this new Republican Congress might actually do seems ready to be seriously considered.

The struggle to define the election will go on far into the future, but a few things can be said now. Those who call it an across-the-board endorsement of conservatism might bear in mind that a great many of the voters were not so much convinced that Republicans had all the answers, but simply ready to try ``something else.'' Since more than 60 percent of those who could have voted didn't - in essence voting for ``none of the above'' - neither party could have claimed a mandate. And the 47 percent of Congress still Democratic represents a powerful minority.

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A troubling aspect of the '94 vote was that the new majority does not ``look like America.'' While most white males voted Republican, most women, Hispanics, and, by an overwhelming margin, blacks, did not.

The Washington drama now is likely to simplify into President Clinton vs. incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a self-described ``conservative futurist.'' New Senate majority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, a veteran lawmaker and a moderate, could play an important role as a mediator, unless his own presidential ambitions force him to toe the conservative line. Gingrich, choosing appropriately macho football terminology, says that as speaker he'll no longer be a ``middle linebacker'' trying to bash his opponents, but a ``head coach'' who sets strategy and coordinates the efforts of others.

Republican promises to reform Congress itself are a start in the right direction. Reorganizing the way the House has operated for 40 years under Democrats should provide a needed breath of fresh air. Cutting the number of committees and the size of their staffs will help restore public confidence in Congress, even though regrettably some talented and dedicated individuals will lose jobs. Requiring ``laws that apply to the rest of the country also [to] apply equally to Congress,'' as the ``Contract With America'' states, makes sense. So does opening up more committee meetings to the public.

The president himself has worked to downsize the federal bureaucracy and ``reinvent government.'' These areas of agreement among president, Congress, and the public seem to be the right way to get next year off to a productive start.

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