NEW CONGRESS: HARMONY AND DISCORD
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — The swearing in of the 107th Congress on Wednesday seemed like the opening act of a drama that’s being written as it happens.
In the Senate chamber — where New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, soon to be former First Lady, looked dazzling in a turquoise pantsuit — the goodwill was intoxicating, as President Clinton, wearing a tie that matched his wife’s outfit, beamed from the balcony with daughter, Chelsea. Even staunch conservative Sen. Strom Thurmond (R., S.C.), planted a kiss on Hillary’s cheek.
Across Capitol Hill, however, members of the House, who are typically more contentious, wasted no time locking horns, as Democrats sparred with Republican leadership over a GOP change in the rules that could put a hitch in Democrats’ ability to maneuver.
“Right now, talk is the cheapest thing in the world, with compassionate conservatism and all those things,” Rep. Robert Matsui (D., Calif.) told reporters, referring to President-elect Bush’s mantra. “The real test is when you give up something the other side wants.”
Matsui’s sense of foreboding underscores the political land mines afoot given the GOP’s narrow majority in the House and the 50-50 power split in the Senate. It’s still anyone’s guess how the divide might either be finessed or become deeper, particularly on issues like trade and Bush’s proposed $1.3 trillion tax cut.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), who’s been assigned the chairmanship of the Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over trade and tax legislation, said it’s up to Bush to set the tone on trade.
“The most important thing is for the [new] President to give a prominent speech on trade that says he’s in favor of a new round of talks at the WTO,” Grassley said in an interview.
Such a proclamation, Grassley said, would nudge Congress toward granting the administration fast-track negotiating authority, required to finalize trade-liberalizing pacts, including a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Congress for several years hasn’t granted the authority because of disagreements over the direction of U.S. trade policy and globalization.
“Negotiating authority is the most difficult,” Grassley said. “I think it has a lot of support in the Senate, but not in the House.”
The fundamental discord over trade is whether agreements should require countries to meet labor and environmental standards in order to have access to the U.S. market. After being sworn in, Rep. Phil Crane (R., Ill.), House Trade Subcommittee chairman and in the running for chairmanship of the full Ways and Means Committee, was ready to declare labor and the environment as nonissues in trade pacts, since Bush is against their inclusion in agreements.
“Labor and the environment are history after this administration,” said Crane, referring to Clinton’s tenure. Regarding fast-track authority, Crane said he thought passage was “potentially achievable.”
The 434-member House has 221 Republicans and 211 Democrats, with two Independents who tend to split their votes. There’s one vacancy, with the recent death of Rep. Julian Dixon (D., Calif.).
In the Senate, the Republicans still technically have control, but only by a thread, since Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, who will also serve as president of the Senate, can cast the tie-breaking vote. However, Democrats continue to push for power sharing on committees and to share control over the agenda and debate.
Senate Republicans, in a demonstration of bipartisanship, albeit temporary, have agreed to allow Sen. Tom Daschle (D., S.D.), the minority leader, to be the majority leader until Bush is sworn in. Technically, Daschle has earned this title because Vice President Al Gore could break a tie vote until he leaves office Jan. 20.
“I must confess that, in six years as minority leader, I’ve had a moment or two when I wondered if this day would ever arrive,” Daschle said of his new status. “I assure you, I intend to savor every one of the next 17 days.”
But Daschle’s role as leader will only be symbolic, since he has said that he won’t try to push through any legislation. In any event, Congress, as of Saturday, will be in adjournment until February.
Julie Hughes, vice president of international trade with the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, said she’s withholding judgment as to whether bipartisanship will prevail.
“At this point we have to be totally optimistic,” Hughes said. “I don’t want to give up on it, yet.”