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A Do-Something Congress

Newt Gingrich may be gone, but whatever his failings, he was not House Republicans' primary problem. That problem is a hard core of social conservatives, most elected in 1994, who refuse to compromise and then complain that nothing gets done. They complain about the party having no message - a serious problem this year, to be sure - but will agree to no message but their own.

Regardless of who joins Speaker-in-waiting Robert Livingston of Louisiana in the revamped House leadership, that problem has not gone away. In fact, with the GOP margin cut from 11 to six votes, it has worsened.

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Another fact of political life: If congressional leaders want to make any legislative headway, they must push to do as much as possible before October 1999. After that date, the presidential race - which has already begun - will eclipse all else in Washington.

So the question now is, how will this House operate?

One grim possibility is that nothing will get done as the president vetoes GOP bills and Hill Republicans block Democrat initiatives, with both sides positioning for 2000. This gridlock scenario can, and must, be avoided.

The best way to do this is for Republican leaders to adopt the model that brought about the balanced-budget deal. GOP and Democratic leaders negotiate directly with the White House over a plan to reform Social Security and Medicare and cut taxes. President Clinton gets his legacy and Republicans show voters they can be safely left in charge.

One problem: Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans could scream sell-out, try to block the legislation, and condemn their leaders for blurring party distinctions instead of giving voters reasons to choose one party over the other. But the political benefits of getting things done for the country should far outweigh any gains from partisan squabbling.

There are other opportunities for bipartisan cooperation. The Republicans can get conservative "Blue Dog" or moderate "New" Democrats to join them on an issue-by-issue basis to make up for the hard-core social-conservative votes they will lose advancing centrist legislation. Or Democrats can float their own middle-of-the-road bills and entice moderate Republicans to vote for them.

Political problems could surface under these scenarios too. Democrats who believe they can take back control of the House in 2000 may have little incentive to cooperate. Or GOP moderates inclined to join forces with Democrats may worry they'll be pilloried by colleagues for turning de facto power over to the other side.

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But, again, the value of accomplishing something through bipartisan cooperation should prevail.

The political benefits from bipartisan teamwork should subdue partisan squabbling.

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