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Democrats wary of cooperating

They say the next president's commitment to working together has got to go beyond words.

[AP photo]
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., talks to reporters Wednesday after meeting with Dick Cheney.

©Associated Press, published December 14, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republicans say they are confident that a president chosen by an excruciatingly divided populace and given a boost by a badly divided Supreme Court can work with an evenly divided Congress. Democrats are not so sure.

Already, Democrats were put off by the high court's decision on Vice President Al Gore's election challenge. Tuesday night's 5-4 ruling against Gore was "not reassuring" to a nation that needed more decisive guidance from the court to rally behind the next president, said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

"I'm absolutely convinced that George W. Bush will be the right man for this difficult time we find ourselves in," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. "I think he is going to reach out and is going to try to bring this country together."

But Democrats were quick to say that the next president's commitment to working together has got to go beyond conciliatory words. "If they are going to be putting up an extremist agenda, then we're getting into the trenches. We will fight it in the House, we will fight it in the Senate, we will fight it in every committee," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y.

Bush would be the first Republican president since Dwight Eisenhower to enjoy Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. It's also the most evenly split Congress in 70 years, a situation that could induce either greater cooperation or absolute gridlock.

The Senate will be even at 50 seats apiece. Republicans hold a 221-211 edge in the House, with two independents and one vacancy likely to be filled by a Democrat.

"If there was any mandate in this election, it was that people wanted us to end the partisan bickering," said Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican.

But Democrats said the seemingly political nature of the high court ruling already dampened some hopes of a new era of cooperation.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., called the Supreme Court "a willing tool of the Bush campaign" and said he opposed its ruling "with every bone in my body and every ounce of moral strength." Added Ackerman: "There's a lot of anger over this decision. I'm angry."

The ability of the next Congress to cooperate among themselves and with a Bush administration will be tested early. Senate Democrats are insisting that, with a 50-50 split, they deserve an equal number on committees and an equal say in setting the legislative agenda. Republicans are resisting, saying that new Vice President Dick Cheney, as president of the Senate, gives them a tie-breaking vote so they must retain the rights of the majority.

Failure to reach an accommodation before the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3 could seriously disrupt hopes of a smooth start.

Senate GOP moderates, who could play a pivotal role in the next Congress, met with Cheney to deliver the message Wednesday that Bush must follow through on his promises to work with Democrats if he hopes to accomplish anything.

"Obviously there is a very badly divided country," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. "We're going to have to approach this government very, very differently."

Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, a leading GOP moderate, said they emphasized to Cheney that any proposed tax cut plan must be balanced so that it helps not only the wealthy -- Democrats' criticism of past GOP plans -- but also the nation's poor.

Jeffords, the Senate's Education Committee chairman, said he and others suggested that Bush consider education needs, which both Republicans and Democrats can agree on, as one of his early legislative priorities.

Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a Bush adviser, said he expects Bush to come to Washington before Christmas to open contacts with lawmakers from both parties. "I expect you'll see the kind of outreach you have not seen with any other president in modern times," he said.

A quick start will be essential, because Bush will lack the benefits of a honeymoon period, said Sen. Blanche L. Lincoln, D-Ark. "I don't think he's going to have much time to sit around and talk about it," Lincoln said. "There is going to have to be some real plans and negotiations to hit the pavement running."

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