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What's Behind Lull in Activity In Washington

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, once a revolutionary, is an embattled man.

In the Senate, majority leader Trent Lott is still feeling his way as that chamber's top Republican.

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And at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Clinton continues almost in campaign mode, dishing up a steady diet of small social initiatives - a thousand points of "lite," Washington wags say.

In short, there's a giant sucking sound here in Washington - the sound of a vacuum in leadership. Journalists are gamely mining the campaign-finance story and following the budget negotiations. But when you get right down to it, there's not a whole lot going on inside the Beltway that's grabbing the public's attention.

Many in the Republican rank and file are unhappy over Mr. Gingrich's declaration that tax cuts can wait. And he faces the nettlesome issue of how to pay his $300,000 fine for ethics violations.

The latest challenge to Senator Lott's authority came as eight GOP senators signed on to a proposal to raise cigarette taxes to help pay for health insurance for uninsured children. Lott opposes the tax hike.

Almost daily, Mr. Clinton deflects the campaign-finance issue, which has barely dented his comfortable approval rating. No big plans or initiatives lie on the horizon.

What's more, say observers, all of this is perfectly normal.

"The House has returned to its natural state, with power centered on the committee chairs," says James Thurber, a political scientist at The American University in Washington. "Lott isn't doing badly. He just doesn't have a clear agenda yet."

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Aside from not controlling the White House, the Republicans are also hampered by their slim majorities on Capitol Hill - only nine seats in the House and 10 in the Senate, not enough to override presidential vetoes.

As for Clinton, the second term so far is looking like the beginning of President Bush's term in office. It, too, didn't have a clear agenda, says Professor Thurber.

When compared with the last Congress, the current group appears downright lazy. From January to March 1995, the Senate was in session for 59 days and the House, 55 days. During the same period this year, the Senate met 37 days and the House for 27. Congress has become a Tuesday-through-Thursday club once again.

But go back to the 103rd Congress in 1993 - the first Congress of Clinton's first term - and the comparison isn't so striking. For that same period, the Senate met 40 days and the House, 35. And that was a motivated Congress. With President Clinton newly inaugurated, Democrats controlled the executive and legislative branches of government for the first time since the Carter administration, and Clinton was eager to enact his agenda.

Some activists are frustrated Clinton isn't taking better advantage of this period of peace and prosperity (and high approval ratings) to tackle long-term issues. John Quinn, an economist at Boston College who co-chaired a panel on the government's Social Security Advisory Council, wishes Clinton would act now to prevent the projected bankruptcy of Social Security in 2029.

"The second term of a president is a good time to do this and the first half of the second term is the best time of all," Professor Quinn said in a statement. "President Clinton doesn't have to be reelected and is in a better position to do the statesmanlike thing."

But as long as Clinton's approval ratings sit comfortably in the 50 percent range, he's not likely to feel urgency about the job he's doing. A New York Times/CBS poll issued this week showed a 56 percent job-approval rating, largely because of the economy.

"Clinton is very lucky the public doesn't care much about campaign finance," says Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political scientist at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. "He can make a statement every day about what he's going to do to fix the system, and the public won't really press him on it."

Still, Clinton is sending out signals he's working on ways to make his mark on history. He's asked White House aides to come up with proposals to improve race relations in America, such as a presidential conference on racial unity and a commission to study the issue. The idea, say aides, is to spur public discussion and action that will eventually link Clinton historically with progress on racial matters.

As for Gingrich's future, rumblings that he could possibly be ousted from the speakership may well prove to be just noise. Unlike the last Speaker of the House to be booted from the chair, former-Rep. Jim Wright (D) of Texas, Gingrich has a core of support in the House, especially among the newer members he helped sweep into office two years ago. There also isn't anyone with broad appeal waiting in the wings to take his spot.

In the larger scheme, what Gingrich and Lott face is the standard problem of managing a majority party - one that, inevitably, has factions with differing priorities and competing views. The challenge will be to pull them together, without the revolutionary banner of the Contract With America flying in the forefront.

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