CONGRESS has slipped another notch or two to the right. It came as no surprise that Senate Republicans named Bob Dole of Kansas as their new majority leader last week, but Trent Lott of Mississippi edged out Senator Dole's longtime No. 2, Alan Simpson of Wyoming, 27 to 26, to become majority whip. This means the Republican whip's position has moved from conservative to more conservative. It also means that Dole has as a whip a close ally of a likely rival for the presidential nomination in 1996, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas - although those who know Senator Lott say he will serve Dole loyally. (Dole has joked that he can always adjourn the Senate if Lott gets out of line.)
On the Democratic side, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the new Senate minority leader who won in a 24-to-23 vote against Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, is a genial, soft-spoken man who had campaigned for the job ever since George Mitchell of Maine announced his retirement this spring. Mr. Mitchell could be pretty genial and soft-spoken himself - as majority leader, he was emphatically not of the Lyndon Johnson school of arm-twisting - but he was no slouch at pursuing Democratic interests.
In Mr. Daschle, the Senate has a man who once made a point of how much it meant to him to be President Clinton's jogging partner - but who now says that although Senate Democrats will work with the White House, ``we will not be led by them.''
In Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, the House has a new Speaker who has not yet gone into the statesman mode that he promised for when the Congress convenes Jan. 4. His unsupported charges of past drug use by some White House staff - charges vehemently denied by the Clinton administration - show Mr. Gingrich still in ``bomb-thrower'' mode, harping about ``counterculture people'' in the administration.
This is not what the country needs.
The nation is still groping for a new agenda. Yes, many will tell you for sure what the people really want, but their certainty is often inversely proportional to the likelihood of their program being enacted.
The 104th Congress will bring about compromises, as it should. The United States has experienced divided government before.
To avoid the kind of politics that disgusts the voters, the process of finding the center and setting the agenda should go on with at least a modicum of trust in the good faith of all concerned.