Democrats' fate hinges on end to gridlock

WITH THE divine prescience that singles them out, America's legions of pundits have long identified the economic package that Bill Clinton was presenting last night as the make-or-break deed of his presidency. But its fate will be scarcely less vital for the 57 men and women who constitute his party's majority in the Senate.

For the first time in 12 years, Democrats had one of their own to applaud as Mr Clinton made his way last night into the House chamber, to deliver what in all but name was his first State of the Union address to the assembled ranks of the US Congress. But that simple fact implies a monumental change of behaviour.

For the best part of a decade the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill has lived by opposition - for the later stages of the Reagan presidency and the entire single term of George Bush systematically scuttling almost every legislative initiative and proposal emanating from the White House.

Nothing did more to elect Mr Clinton than the promise that with the same party installed at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, 'gridlock' would be be banished, and US government could work again. But for that to happen, the Democrats must first re-acquire some long-forgotten habits, including patience, discipline and obedience.

If the President's deficit therapy of tax increases and spending cuts is to have a prayer, the Democrats will have to assume the mantle of government majorities in classic European parliamentary systems, where whips are whips and party lines are toed. In the Senate, where it matters most, the early signs are not encouraging.

During the Republican years, great Democratic fiefdoms developed on Capitol Hill, the mightiest of them in the most powerful Senate committees. Hugely influential figures in their own right, their chairmen owed nothing to Mr Reagan and Mr Bush. Thus far, to Mr Clinton's discomfort, they are acting as if they owe him nothing either.

Already Senator Daniel Moynihan, chairman of the Finance Committee, has publicly deplored 'the clatter of campaign promises being thrown out of the window'. The homosexuals in the military kerfuffle brought Mr Clinton into collision with Sam Nunn of the Armed Services Committee. 'Never,' Mr Nunn was quoted as saying, 'have I regarded the President as boss'.

Even the Senate Majority Leader, George Mitchell, tacitly admits he may not be able to deliver the goods: 'Certainly Democrats in the Senate should, and I think will, be willing to change the ways they have operated in the past.'

But it will be tough. The President himself may have courted Congress assiduously, but less sensitive aides have already bruised some egos on Capitol Hill.

Not only do the Democrats have special interest groups to worry about. As politicians facing re-election, they must look to their home constituencies too. The proposed energy tax, in particular, could cause uproar to overwhelm the most disciplined intentions. 'By the time the sausage goes through the grinder, it's going to look substantially different,' Senator Bob Kerrey, who ran against Mr Clinton in the early Democratic primaries, warned this week.

But fractious cussedness could cost the Democrats, and their President, dearly. In the 1994 Congressional elections, 34 Senate seats are at stake - 22 of them Democrat controlled, many precariously. A net loss of only eight would hand the Republicans a Senate majority. Mr Clinton might then find himself as impotent as Mr Bush.

Leading article, page 24

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