Despite Partisan Battles, Congress May Get Results Balanced Budget Is High Priority for Both Sides

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CONGRESS RETURNS to Washington this week to face the most peculiar of prospects: simultaneous war and peace.

The partisan brawl surrounding Speaker Newt Gingrich's ethics case and mounting investigations of Whitewater and Democrats' campaign donations a ll portend a session of brutal character-bashing by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Yet both sides still seem serious about some major collaborative work, such as balancing the federal budget and providing new tax breaks for families. No one is sure these conflicting modes can coexist on Capitol Hill. But amazingly, some people think they actually might. "The big surprise may be that (this Congress) will be more productive than anyone thinks possible now," said Larry Sabato, a professor of politic al science at the University of Virginia. "It's almost as if we're going to run on two tracks - a hyperpartisan, acrimonious track of ethical investigations and a constructive, issue-oriented track that will produce some real accomplishments." The House is certain to spend at least the first few weeks deep in the hyperpartisan track, consumed by the Gingrich case. But after the House votes on the Georgia Republican's punishment Jan. 21, GOP lawmakers may be looking for ways to put the imbroglio behind them. "The ethics stuff will be over and done with Jan. 21," said Michele Davis, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas. "There's certainly an angry band of Democratic party malcontents who will keep screaming about it. But the rest of us are going to be getting some work done." President Bill Clinton also has pledged to look for "common ground" in his second term, which could help him construct a legacy of major legislation and not just a scandal-marred record for the history books. "You could argue that both the speaker and the president will be so anxious to focus attention on other matters that they will be willing to work out an agreement" at least on the budget, said Robert Reischauer, a budget expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. In tone and substance, the opening of the 105th Congress today is likely to be very different from two years ago. The 104th Congress, the first Republican-dominated Congress in 40 years, was sworn in with a self-confident GOP at the helm, with a legislative agenda packed with proposals to balance the budget, reform welfare and achieve other goals mapped out by the party's "Contract With America. …