- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2001

The 107th Congress convened yesterday with Democrats in temporary control of the Senate, Republicans holding their ground in the House and top Democrats moving slightly toward President-elect George W. Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut.

With most politicians pledging bipartisanship but nobody sure how or if it will work President Clinton watched from a spectator's gallery as his wife, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, was sworn in as the junior senator from New York.

Below him on the Senate floor, Vice President Al Gore performed one of his last official duties, presiding as 11 new senators including George F. Allen of Virginia took the oath of office. Four of them are women, bringing their total in the Senate to a record 13, the most in the body's history.

"These are certainly historic times," said Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, who has lost his status as majority leader in the evenly divided Senate until Jan. 20, when incoming Republican Vice President-elect Richard B. Cheney will hold the tie-breaking vote.

Said the temporary Democratic majority leader, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, "I assure you I intend to savor every one of the next 17 days."

But as a practical matter, Congress will not take up any new legislation until after Jan. 20, when the GOP again controls both chambers.

In the House, with 41 new members, Republicans re-elected Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois. They were aided by Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., Ohio Democrat, who voted for Mr. Hastert as a protest against his party's leadership. House Democrats will almost certainly boot Mr. Traficant from all of their future meetings.

Republicans hold a 221-211 advantage in the House, with two independents and one vacant seat. At the moment, it is the same margin the GOP held last year, and it is the first time since the 1920s that Republicans have controlled the House for the fourth straight Congress.

Referring to the expensive and protracted election season, Mr. Hastert told his colleagues yesterday, "It is only in Washington where many still have a lingering animosity for the political parties. My friends, we need to get over it."

That process began yesterday in fits and starts that signaled little change from both parties' positions on substantive issues such as tax cuts and education reform, two of Mr. Bush's most important goals.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri yesterday said he is "prepared to work together with the new administration" on Mr. Bush's tax-cut proposal, perhaps as much as $600 billion over 10 years.

"In the past, we've talked about a tax cut over 10 years of about $250 billion or $300 billion," Mr. Gephardt told reporters.

Mr. Daschle agreed with his sentiment.

"That is substantially more than we've done in the past," Mr. Daschle said. Both men cited the economic slowdown and increased surplus projections as their reasons for movement on the issue.

But Mr. Gore campaigned last fall on a $500 billion tax cut, and the figure cited by congressional Democrats yesterday is still less than half of what Mr. Bush insists is needed to rejuvenate the economy.

Said Mr. Lott of a $600 billion tax cut over 10 years, "No, no. No, that's not nearly enough. Why, I'd think with that amount you probably couldn't even do a full elimination of the marriage penalty tax and the phase-out of the death tax. So that certainly wouldn't be enough."

Still, Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, said Mr. Gephardt's comments are significant.

"That's an unusual show of putting your cards down," Mr. Foley said. "All the Democrats in marginal districts would like to see reasonable tax cuts."

Mrs. Clinton is the unquestioned celebrity in the new Congress. But other new faces include Sen. Jean Carnahan, Missouri Democrat, who was appointed to the seat after her husband, Mel, the governor, was killed in a plane crash and won the election posthumously; and Rep. Tom Osborne, Nebraska Republican, one of college football's most successful coaches while at the University of Nebraska.

Mr. Bush has pledged to work with Democrats in the new Congress. And yesterday, the centrist group called the New Democrats, representing 18 senators and more than 70 House members, met and agreed to send a letter to Mr. Bush detailing its desire to work with him on education reform, tax cuts and trade policy.

The meeting included Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and Mr. Gore's running mate.

"This group … is really the bridge that can produce the kinds of results this country wants," Mr. Lieberman said.

Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, said the New Democrats "see ourselves as the people who occupy the 50-yard line."

Said Rep. Cal Dooley, California Democrat, "We're going to be a constructive force." But several members of the group said they are staunchly opposed to school vouchers, a key feature of Mr. Bush's education plan.

"We're Democrats," Mr. Lieberman said. "We're loyal to our Democratic leadership."

And yesterday they opposed Mr. Gephardt's movement toward larger tax cuts, saying they prefer to pay down the federal debt and focus on limited tax cuts for low-income people.

"A tax cut is not going to stimulate the economy for another year or two," said Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat.

Some Republicans said the New Democrats are overstating their clout.

"I think it's going to be a more prevalent relationship [with Republicans] this year than in the past," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, Delaware Republican. "But to suggest we're always going to be voting [with the New Democrats] in a bloc is just not correct. They're still Democrats, and we're still Republicans."

Some Republicans complained yesterday that the New Democrats and others are seizing the legislative initiative because the Bush team, working under a shortened transition period, has yet to put forth a detailed agenda.

"Our fear is that there will be a legislative vacuum that the Democrats will fill," said a top Republican House aide. "By this time last year, we'd already decided half of our agenda."

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