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Public’s Preference For Divided Control Responsible For Deals

Cragg Hines Houston Chronicle

Should the nation be a little wary of the giant fiscal deal that at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue is glibly - and invariably - described as “a win-win situation”? Perhaps.

But if, over the coming months or years, the public turns against the budget-balancing and tax-cutting bills that won overwhelming congressional approval last week, it will have only itself to blame.

Both measures are the consummate product of the divided governments that American voters so often elect and politicians’ halting attempts at what they call bipartisanship.

For 23 of the last 29 years, at least one house - and usually both - of Congress has been in control of a different party than that which has held the White House.

It has happened so frequently that it is hard to write it off as happenstance. Polling data as well as empirical evidence suggest voters are pleased when there is a balance of parties in Washington that brings the government to the broad middle of the political spectrum.

Look at just the last five years, a historical blink of an eye.

In 1992, with a mushy economy and Republicans weary at the end of a 12-year run in the White House, voters turned to a young Democratic outsider, Bill Clinton. However, after his aggressive, left-leaning first two years, voters handed Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years.

But the electorate’s view of GOP rule - and especially House Speaker Newt Gingrich - soured quickly, as Republicans were blamed for the political impasse over the budget that resulted in two government shutdowns.

Clinton quickly repositioned at the center and easily won re-election, even as Republicans - who struck a number of last-minute legislative bargains with the White House - hung on to both the House and Senate.

In relatively short order, both sides had been chastened by a persnickety public. Each wanted to at least make it appear that the lesson had been learned.

So, within the last few months, they have hammered out what is now being trumpeted as a major economic breakthrough - the first hope of a balanced federal budget in nearly 30 years and the first major tax cut in 16 years.

In fact, the Republican leaders of Congress and Democrat Clinton have used a strong economy to move on a few key policy issues. The president got his way on education tax credits and child health care. Republicans got to whack the capital gains tax and real estate levies.

This was all wrapped into what both sides hope will be a politically appealing package.

The far right and left of both parties, as well as a few fiscal Jeremiahs in the middle who opposed the bills, were dismissive of their leaders’ exultations.

“If it seems too good to be true, do you know what? It is,” warned Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., as the House considered the measures. “This is not a new day in Washington. This is business as usual: cutting up a fat hog.”

Be that as it may, the first soundings indicate Americans like the attempt by Clinton and the Republican Congress to make nice.

A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll conducted as the House and Senate were completing work on the economic measures found the approval rating for Congress higher than at any time since Republicans gained control - and in positive territory for the first time in many months.

Clinton is sailing along like the booming stock market. In the Wall Street Journal-NBC sounding, the president hit a record 62 percent approval rating vs. a record low 29 percent who disapprove.

The new numbers, however, reflect a couple of anomalies, including the view of a majority of respondents - 52 percent - who, despite their enthusiasm for the economic package, believe it is not at all likely that the budget will really be balanced in five years.

Additionally, “Clinton and the Democrats” got more credit than the “Republicans in Congress” - by a 46 percent to 36 percent margin - for the economic package. This will gall GOP stalwarts, who argue there would have been no balanced budget or tax cut without their insistence.

Fax machines in Washington hummed all week, as various Republican groups claimed credit. One outfit even sent out the quote of ABC News reporter Cokie Roberts, the daughter of two former House Democratic members, who remarked on last Sunday’s “This Week”: “Look, there wouldn’t be a tax cut if it weren’t for the Republicans.”

In truth, both parties can - and will - seek to take cover under the measures’ ample umbrellas. They are so broad, in fact, that one Democratic political consultant sniped: “It’s an awfully easy way for Newt and Clinton to look like statesmen.”

Politically, bills with such multiple parentage and wide support provide an escape hatch from blame.

Divided government, said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, is “similar to the excuse, ‘The dog ate my homework.’ It’s easy to deny responsibility for problems.”

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