Gridlock need not be inevitable for Bush, Democratic House

Friday, November 3rd 2006, 2:27 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When voters put a president from one party up against a Congress controlled by the other, the result isn't always gridlock.

From Interstate highways and environmental protection to Social Security fixes and welfare reform, playing nice on policy can pay dividends, recent history shows.

Fresh opportunities abound if, as predicted, Democrats win control of the House _ and somewhat less likely the Senate _ next week, but success will require both sides to suppress bitterness and payback urges.

Accomplishments over the next two years will require trust and good will, and not much of that exists in the toxic atmosphere of the midterm election after President Bush's six years in office.

``White House officials do not expect that a Democratic-controlled Congress would work with them in any sincere or meaningful way,'' said George C. Edwards III, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. ``True or not, this perception could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.''

Democrats look at such a development as getting even for six years of being shut out of the final negotiations with the White House and majority Republicans on major issues like homeland security, tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug program.

Recent interviews with some prospective committee chairmen preview the response the White House can expect if Democrats hold the gavels in the House when the new Congress convenes in January.

``Whatever influence (Republicans) have, it will be more than they have over me,'' said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who would become chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. ``Because what they have over me will be zero.''

Translation: legislative gridlock.

It wasn't always so. History is full of major breakthroughs in lawmaking during the four decades that Democrats controlled Congress and Republicans floated in and out of the White House, starting with the Interstate highway program begun during the Eisenhower presidency.

President Richard Nixon signed into law major environmental protection policies negotiated with Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. In Ronald Reagan's presidency, a Democratic House passed legislation sustaining Social Security for another three decades.

A key deficit reduction program and the Americans With Disabilities Act became law when Democrats ran the Congress and Bush's father was president.

And in the mid-1990s, when both branches of government had switched hands, President Clinton and the new Republican congressional majority overhauled the nation's welfare laws _ an achievement both sides name as one of their proudest.

President Bush and lawmakers from both parties have incentives for following their predecessors and finding consensus on issues left unresolved at the messy end of an unproductive 109th Congress. In the twilight of a wartime presidency, Bush could polish his legacy by reviving his uniter-not-a-divider campaign promise of 2000.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle beginning what amounts to a two-year job interview for the presidency and more seats on Capitol Hill also have reason to move away from confrontation politics. While Bush enjoyed only a 38 percent approval rating in an AP-AOL News poll of likely voters last month, the public's view of Congress was much worse, with only 23 percent approving its performance.

``There's no way in the world that Democrats can achieve anything if we try to get even,'' cautioned Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., who was elected during Nixon's term and is in line to chair the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

As for the White House:

``It would seem to me that the president and the vice president might want to be creating a climate so that the last two years of their office would be productive,'' Rangel said.

Legislation that could get new life if Democrats take control of at least the House and Bush shows new willingness to compromise includes:

_Overhauling immigration policy to bestow legal status on some of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. A bill to do that was endorsed by Bush and passed by the Senate despite objections from conservatives who labeled it amnesty for illegal immigrants. Republicans instead passed and Bush signed a bill to erect more fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border.

_Agreeing on a course for the war in Iraq, the top issue voters identified in pre-election polls. There's a precedent. Nixon began a negotiated withdrawal from Vietnam after a Democratic Congress balked at providing additional money for the war.

_Fixing the alternative minimum tax, a measure originally intended to close tax loopholes for millionaires but that now, through inflation, threatens to impose higher taxes on millions of middle-income families.

_Addressing looming insolvencies in the Social Security and Medicare programs as post-World War II baby boomers retire. Pitting generations against one another, those are the government's two thorniest domestic issues. A solution could pay huge political dividends at election time.

_Improving health programs for the nation's 24 million living veterans and the tens of thousands more who will pile into the system as a result of Iraq and Afghan wars.