Something very unusual happened at the White House yesterday: President Bush and the Democratic leadership in Congress met and reasoned together. Granted, it took the Los Angeles rioting to break the election-year standoff between Capitol Hill and the White House. For months these politicians had decided it was in their partisan interest to deadlock over the urgent domestic problems confronting America; now they have concluded that, as incumbents all, they share a common interest in coming up with an urban agenda.
For the long-suffering citizenry, this is an occasion that calls for thanks for small favors. Their public servants are finally of a mind to do something. They even are in tentative, cautious agreement on some of the things they might do: Emergency aid for devastated Los Angeles, enterprise zones for the inner cities, job training, public works, unemployment benefits, summer jobs -- almost anything that might give the despairing black underclass a sense of hope and spare the white middle-class a sense of growing insecurity.
What remains at issue is how the deficit-ridden federal government will pay for such programs. Neither the White House nor the Democratic leaders would set a price tag. Instead, they reached for consensus, ratcheted down their rhetoric and generally acted like politicians who finally realize the voters are sick and tired of the Washington establishment and the games it plays. Not only is Los Angeles in the background of the new mood inside the beltway; so is Ross Perot.
Within a week or two, Congress is likely to pass and President Bush to sign an $800 million bill for racially riven Los Angeles and flood-damaged Chicago. This will be "emergency" legislation that probably will be paid for with a small upward blip in the record $400 billion deficit. More to the point will be later arrangements to finance programs bearing larger costs. The president continues to insist on no new taxes; Democrats want to tap the defense budget; in the end, the results are likely to be heavy on authorizations and light on appropriations. As Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., remarked: "We ain't got the money."
Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who has hardly been on speaking terms with the president, says "the will now exists" to pass new laws. House Speaker Tom Foley said "we've got to work together." Senate Republican leader Bob Dole said the president "doesn't want a confrontation with Congress." And Mr. Bush said "we will push ahead" after "a promising start."
Nice thoughts. Nice words. All reflecting official Washington's need to demonstrate it can act rather than fight. What emerges may be modest in substance but important in intent if the present show of good sense and solidarity proves to be more than a passing charade. Voters should encourage this process but hold their applause.