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After the Handshakes

Handshakes, kind words, and calls for an end to "partisan bickering" were on display Monday along with the flags and bunting at President Clinton's inauguration. Tuesday the House of Representatives made its fine and reprimand of Speaker Gingrich official, and the upbeat talk went back on the shelf along with the patriotic drapery - or so goes one line of analysis.

But let's not be too hasty to retreat into hard-boiled cynicism. The ethics scandals that have given this political season such a sharp partisan edge will continue to echo through Congress and the White House. But they don't have to drown out all else.

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The Speaker's problems have been publicly aired; he has been hit with an unprecedented reprimand and a fine of $300,000 for misusing tax-exempt money. His personal sway over the 105th Congress is likely to be a shadow of the influence he commanded in the 104th.

Will he last as Speaker? Can he redeem himself with the American public? The answer to both questions could be yes, if he follows through on this week's note of bipartisanship and works with the president to realize shared goals: a balanced federal budget, needed adjustments in Medicare and Social Security, and campaign spending reform, for example.

The same, of course, can be said for Mr. Clinton. His ethical and legal problems will resurface. The Democratic fund-raising scandals bring into question the judgment of the president and his party. (We hope the Democrats' pledge to clean up their act unilaterally will prove to be more than a rhetorical feint.) The final chapters of Whitewater are yet to be written. The Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit awaits a Supreme Court ruling. The president starts his second term pursued by these matters, but he, too, can put a stamp of accomplishment on the next two years by concentrating on a few big goals.

When it comes to entitlement reform and other issues central to fiscal responsibility, the big question is, who will go first? The Republicans know what it's like to be burned by going first on, say, Medicare restraints. The president may have to step up first this year and seize the opportunity to show leadership and character. What better way to offset the ethics clamor?

Nothing will come easily. Some legislative items, like the balanced budget constitutional amendment, will tend to wedge the parties apart. But American democracy is designed to foster debate. That does not, however, have to mean a stultifying descent into bickering. Not if the people in a position to lead are determined to get something done.

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