Conciliation on Hill Begins ... on Hill ; within Congress, Recognition Is Growing That Members Themselves Must Act to End Era of Acrimony

Article excerpt

The day after the election, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert took a phone call from the man who had wanted his job: minority leader Richard Gephardt.

It was a gracious call - a simple congratulations for GOP victory at the polls, say staff members. More notably, it was the first time the two leaders had spoken since June.

It's an understatement to say that bipartisan spirit has not defined the 106th Congress. Indeed, just days before the election, Mr. Gephardt painted his face blue and carried a spear, "Braveheart"-like, to a Democratic caucus meeting.

But if the next Congress is to accomplish much of anything, the House leaders have only to look in the mirror to see the face of rapprochement. Indeed, in recent days lawmakers throughout Congress are increasingly realizing that they must end the acrimony themselves. No help from a big majority. No help from a powerful new president.

"It's going to take great leadership from all parties - not just this talk of bipartisanship," says former GOP Sen. Bob Dole, a veteran of reaching across the aisle.

The nation will get an early look at congressional conduct. Lawmakers return to the Hill Dec. 5 to try to finish up three unresolved spending bills that have been tied up for months.

Still, history holds out hope that a spirit of bipartisanship can infiltrate Congress - even with one of the narrowest margins ever between majority and minority parties. The most recent example comes from 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower swept into the presidency, but Republicans barely won control of the Senate and had only an eight- seat margin in the House.

The outgoing Speaker, Sam Rayburn (D) of Texas could have exploited this narrow margin to tie up Congress and the Eisenhower administration. He didn't.

"As to the opposition party that I am supposed to lead, it is not going to be opposition for opposition's sake alone," Rayburn wrote to a friend the night before giving up the Speakership he'd held through the war years. "Any mule can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one."

Instead, he worked closely with the new Republican Speaker - and even let him keep the big Speaker's office after Democrats took back the House in 1954.

Experts disagree over why Rayburn took this tack. Some note that the times were dangerous, and he didn't want to risk giving an opening to communist dictators at the height of the cold war. Others say he and protege Lyndon Johnson in the Senate believed congressional leaders should work with the president.

"The great leaders like Rayburn set parameters on what they could agree on, and didn't fight about what they didn't. They understood the other guy's point of view. They kept their word. They let the other guy keep his dignity," says Alvin Felzenberg, a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

But today's lawmakers no longer face an all-consuming foe. And in recent years, the culture of Congress has soured.

When the bitterness began

Some say the sharp partisanship started back in 1985, when the Democrat-controlled House refused to seat the Republican winner of a close House race in Indiana. …