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Washington Foes Warily Consider Joining Hands


One week after the general election, political dtente still prevails in Washington. But recent pledges of cooperation from Democrats and Republicans contain hints that their new working relationship will not be an entirely peaceful one.

True, from the White House to Capitol Hill there's remarkable consensus today about general policy goals. Everybody who can read a tracking poll agrees on the need to balance the budget, fix Medicare, and (maybe) do something about campaign-finance abuses.

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Like so much in life, however, the problem lies in the particulars. Details still divide the parties on a number of important issues. Bitterness left over from Campaign '96 could still undermine progress towards compromise.

Coming weeks will see a number of indicators showing whether Washington has entered an era of good feelings - or a new era of stalemate. Three important ones:

Medicare: panel or punching bag? President Clinton has called for establishment of a bipartisan panel to deal with Medicare's acute financing problems. On Sunday, however, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi expressed little enthusiasm for the idea.

Senator Lott - now perhaps the most powerful Republican in the nation - said that a precondition of any Medicare fix would be a White House admission that Mr. Clinton demagogued the issue during the campaign. "He needs to wake up on this and be honest with the American people about the seriousness of the problem," said Lott in a television broadcast interview.

White House musical chairs. The type of person Clinton nominates to fill his many Cabinet and staff openings will be an important indication of his government's future tone. Early steps show a continued move towards the center - or towards the right, depending on your point of view.

Newly appointed chief of staff Erskine Bowles is a centrist along the lines of his departing predecessor Leon Panetta. Deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, who reportedly wanted the job, would have been a more liberal choice. Mr. Ickes is now departing, though he could yet end up in another administration post.

Clinton's choices for secretaries of State and Defense will be particularly important. He's talked about bringing Republicans into his Cabinet, and if he does it will likely be in one of these top jobs.

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Whither Newt? Next week, House Republicans will nominate their candidate for Speaker. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia is likely to continue in the post, but the tone of his next term will have a large bearing on the relationship between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

A continued ethics investigation of the incumbent Speaker has some Republicans worried. A few are now saying openly what many have talked about privately for some time: Representative Gingrich should step aside until the matter - which deals with the legality of contributions to his PAC, among other things - is resolved.

"It's a good idea, and I think it would reduce the amount of rhetoric that we would hear on the floor," said Rep. Steve Largent (R) of Oklahoma in a broadcast interview on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Clinton himself indicated that if he could do one thing in his second term, it would be to balance the budget. If in fact he accomplishes this task - something no Oval Office occupant has done for 30 years - it would likely be seen as a historic achievement.

IT would also represent something of a political irony. For a Democrat to pledge fiscal prudence as his legacy might be seen in history as a role reversal along the lines of Republican Richard Nixon opening links with Communist China.

"I think psychologically and, in fact, economically it is very important for America to have a balanced budget," Clinton told interviewer David Brinkley on Sunday.

If nothing else, Clinton's balanced-budget goal shows how much Washington's dialogue has shifted towards the right in recent years. When he took office, Clinton proposed budgets with a continuing string of $200-million-plus deficits. Now he's at least rhetorically wedded to continuing the path of fiscal prudence that produced a $107 billion deficit this year, the lowest government red-ink total in years.

Work towards this goal could begin as early as this week. Clinton has already invited the GOP congressional leadership to meet him at the White House and start work on a bipartisan budget package.

Clinton seems aware that if his second term is successful he will likely have to be preemptive in a way he was not during Campaign '96. He came back and won reelection at least partly because he defined himself against the Republicans, Newt Gingrich, and their "extreme agenda." Now he may have to push forward with accomplishments of his own if next century's textbooks are to rate him more than the late 20th century's Martin Van Buren.

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