Recipe For Gridlock

Take a president with no electoral mandate, add an evenly divided Senate, mix in a 7-to-11 vote majority House of Representatives, and stir at a roiling boil.

Sounds like a recipe for gridlock. (Serves 267 million Americans.)

With the new president, whoever he may be, coming to Washington under a cloud of suspicion because of the contested election returns in Florida, and all those re-elected incumbent members of Congress shaking off an impeachment hangover, how are these people going to work together?

Congressional experts and alumni surveyed by agree that if anything is to get done in the next Congress, the next president will need to be coach, player and referee.

In the Senate, the count is 50-49 for the Republicans. The 100th Senate seat, a Republican seat in Washington state, remains too close to call, with a half-million absentee ballots pending.

And then there's the Joe Lieberman factor. If the Democrats win the presidential election, the Connecticut Democrat's seat will be filled by a Republican appointee.

The way things stand now in the House, there are 220 Republicans, 211 Democrats and two independents, who usually vote one with either side. Two races, in New Jersey and Florida, are still being counted.

Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, predicts that under the circumstances, there will be deep partisan bitterness among members of the party that loses the presidential election, and only the new president can breach the divide.

"The new president, " Wittmann says, "is going to have to create what is referred to in Europe as a national unity party," that must include Cabinet appointees from the opposition party.

Retired Democratic Senator Paul Simon thinks a cross-party Cabinet appointment would be wise and that "the new president has to really reach out as Jerry Ford did," building relationships with members of Congress from the opposing party in "informal, small meetings."

Simon, who was in the House of Representatives when Ford became president after Nixon's resignation, remembers President Ford building a "working relationship with Congress that was good for the country" and resulted in a new special education law.

Simon says congressional leaders need to recognize that "excessive partisanship is not what the people want." Given that George W. Bush polled at least half the people running on a promise to "change the tone in Washington," that sounds about right.

Indeed, on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt placed a call to Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and told reporters he hoped to put things on a "more collaborative plane."

Wittmann says the power center of the next Congress will be a "broad swath of moderate senators of both parties."

Former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, an Illinois Democrat, says that with sucnarrows majorities in Congress and such a slim margin of victory in the presidential election, neither the Congress nor the new president has any kind of a mandate. "I think you're going to go through a period for the next few years of the country running in place," he says.

"Clearly the voters are deadlocked," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. Nonetheless, he sees a legislative mandate for Congress around the traditionally Democratic issues that dominated the Campaign 2000 debate: health care, especially prescription drugs, and education.

Wittmann says the new president will have a window of opportunity between the inauguration and the August recess. "Clearly, in order for a new president to get anything done he has to cobble together a bipartisan coalition. The leadership will not come from the Hill. It has to emanate from the White House."

Mellman thinks Congress may be motivated to produce some results by the 2002 mid-term elections, when both the House and the Senate will be up for grabs, but he's pessimistic that congressional Republicans will play ball on prescription drugs and the patients' bill of rights law passed by the House.

Rostenkowski says that with such narrow majorities in both chambers every member of Congress becomes "an independent contractor."

"Everybody is a king here," concurs Mellman. "Every individual has the potential to be the make-or-break vote."

The expiring Congress will meet next week for a lame duck session, with unfinished appropriations business still on their plates.