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Congress Returns to Partisan Gridlock After Brief Respite - 2001-12-26

Immediately after the September 11 attacks on the United States, the Republican-led House of Representatives and the Democratic-led Senate stood solidly behind President Bush as he vowed to find and bring to justice those responsible. But since then, partisan gridlock has taken hold.

The day after the attacks, Democrats and Republicans in Congress spoke with one voice in support of Mr. Bush's new war on terrorism.

"We want to give him the tools that he needs, that his administration needs, to deal with this problem," said Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives. "We are behind that and we are for that."

It is imperative that we understand that we are in a war," said Congressman Henry Hyde, a Republican from Illinois and chairman of the House International Relations Committee. "It is imperative that we take the steps necessary, both in terms of policy and funding, to make sure we win that war."

Days later, after Mr. Bush discussed his anti-terrorism campaign before a joint session of Congress, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, pledged bipartisanship.

"We are resolved to work together, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans," he said. "We will do whatever is necessary to protect our nation. Nothing is more urgent."

But the spirit of bipartisanship proved short-lived. Cracks in the cohesiveness became apparent once the Bush administration asked Congress for expanded law enforcement powers to wiretap suspected terrorists.

Civil liberties advocates, including Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Michigan, expressed their concerns to Attorney General John Ashcroft when he appeared at a Congressional hearing on the matter.

"You must also take into cognizance that there are a number of provisions in your measure that give us Constitutional trouble," he said.

After weeks of partisan debate on the proposal, the House and Senate did pass legislation authorizing greater law enforcement authority to crackdown on terrorists. The vote came only after a compromise was reached that called for many of the wiretap provisions to expire in four years.

But the deal did little to restore bipartisanship especially when it came to economic matters.

Lawmakers blamed each other for stalling a stimulus package to help the stagnant U.S. economy, with Republicans wanting broader tax cuts and Democrats demanding greater benefits for those who lost jobs.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, accused Democrats of being obstructionist.

"I have tried to get us to have a bipartisan bill out of the finance committee. That was denied," he said. "I tried to get something done before it got to the floor, working with centrist groups, that was denied."

Senator Daschle saw it another way. "I do not know how you blame the Democrats when it was the Republicans who made a point of order against the bill in the first place," he said. "It is the Republicans who refused to come to the table in the second place. So it seems to me if anybody is to blame it is our Republican colleagues."

Political observers are not surprised by Congress' return to partisan gridlock after their unified stand in the days after September 11.

Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution here in Washington says lawmakers generally rally around the President during a crisis even if they challenge him on civil rights issues. But he says on domestic issues, like the economy, differences are expected in a two-party system.

Mr. Hess believes partisanship may intensify next year when many lawmakers will be seeking re-election in November's midterm elections.

"As the year goes by, the two parties are going to try to convince the American people of the differences of why they should vote for one party of the candidate of one party and not another," he said. "So it is very likely if it follows past pattern that there will be relatively little bipartisanship at least when it comes to domestic legislation next year."

And that means more legislative gridlock.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001