Clinton's Crime-bill Victory In The House May Signal A Needed Detente With The Gop

Posted: August 25, 1994

President Clinton won a needed victory on Sunday when the House passed the big crime bill. What was most significant is that he reversed the stunning setback he had suffered 10 days earlier, when the bill was blocked on a procedural vote, by reaching out to Republicans.

For the first time, the Clinton administration did its domestic policy- making on a genuinely bipartisan basis. That pattern offers its best hope of salvaging something, not just on health-care legislation in September, but on the President's agenda in 1995 and 1996 as well.

To understand the importance of the crime-bill vote pattern, you must recall that at the outset of his term, Clinton accepted the advice of top congressional Democrats that, despite his 43 percent plurality win and the loss of 10 House seats, his domestic agenda could be passed simply by mobilizing the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Last year's budget and economic plan were passed over unanimous Republican opposition. Smaller domestic measures also went through on largely party-line votes. Republicans strongly supported Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement but most Democrats - including two of the three top leaders in both the House and Senate - did not.

This time, it was genuinely bipartisan. At the news conference following the 235-195 passage of the crime bill, House Speaker Thomas Foley (D., Wash.) and Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.) and the top Democrats on the Judiciary Committee were surrounded by a dozen Republicans who had made major contributions to rewriting the crime bill after the House stunned Clinton on Aug. 11 by rejecting the procedural vote to call up the bill, 225-210.

On that vote, 58 Democrats - mainly opponents of the assault-weapons ban - opposed Clinton and only 11 Republicans (mostly Northern suburbanites) crossed lines to support bringing up the bill.

Clinton took his case to the public, but shifted few votes. He tried private wooing of recalcitrant Democrats, but got only three of them to come his way. On the key procedural vote Sunday, 55 Democrats still opposed the President. What made the difference was that this time 42 Republicans, almost four times as many as on the first round, voted with Clinton.

He got them by sending White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta into serious negotiations with the Republicans and telling his congressional allies he wanted them engaged in the talks as well. Clinton refused to compromise on the bill's assault-weapons ban, but approved major concessions on other provisions and a reduction in its overall spending targets.

The President found a familiar Republican negotiating partner in former Delaware Gov. Mike Castle, now a freshman member of the House. When Clinton was governor of Arkansas, he and Castle represented the National Governors Association in dealing with Congress on welfare issues. They started the crime talks with a basis of trust.

The other key negotiator for the Republicans was Rep. John Kasich of Ohio, a budget expert who knew Panetta well from the days when Panetta headed the House Budget Committee.

Both Castle and Kasich had opposed Clinton on the first vote, and their willingness to enter the negotiations was criticized by many of their fellow- Republicans. But, significantly, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.), the minority whip, encouraged the talks, even while withholding his own support of the end- product.

Few outside Washington realize the extent of the frustration that House Republicans, 40 years in the minority, feel at their exclusion from substantive policy-making. Occasionally, on some issues in some committees, their ideas get serious consideration, but rarely are they in a position to influence the shape of a bill on the House floor. Here, they found themselves dealing directly with the leaders of the opposition party and the White House on major legislation. It was tough going - but it was heady stuff.

"In the states," Castle told me afterward, "you get past partisanship and into governing pretty quickly. Here in Washington, if you're part of the minority (party), you are rarely allowed to contribute to governing."

In the same interview, Kasich said, "This is the first real gut-wrenching effort both sides have made to govern from the middle. There will be no going back." After November, when Republicans are expected to make gains in both the House and Senate, Clinton will have no choice but to approach more issues on a bipartisan basis, Kasich said.

House Democratic Whip David Bonior (D., Mich.), as liberal as Kasich is conservative, agrees. "We're entering a new era," he said, "and after the election, we'll need a less rancorous House."

It's too soon to say that Clinton will reach out regularly to Republicans as he struggles to salvage his presidency. But the House crime bill vote certainly signals that the possibility is open to him.

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