WHY GRIDLOCK WON'T GO AWAY White House tries to mend Democratic splits

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Just as the Democrats' new "unified" government was trying this week to prove that gridlock is broken, the Senate was demonstrating why that won't be so easy to do.

Despite another round of consultations that yesterday brought President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to Capitol Hill on three separate lobbying missions, the Democrats couldn't win speedy enactment of a relatively simple bill that has overwhelming bipartisan support.


Expected Senate passage last night of the Family and Medical Leave bill came only after three days of delaying tactics by the Republicans, who succeeded in forcing reluctant Democrats to vote on whether to block Mr. Clinton from lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military.

"It was a terrible start for everybody," said Sen. Dale Bumpers, a Democrat from Mr. Clinton's home state of Arkansas. "They demanded a vote that is senseless and unnecessary, but that they can use two years from now against Democrats at the polls. That was the price they extracted for the family leave bill."


The Democrats had to pay that price because the rules of the cantankerous Senate allow a minority to jam up the works until it gets its way. With only 57 Democratic senators, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine could not muster the 60 votes required to shut off a GOP filibuster.

But the Republicans were taking advantage of the opportunity handed them by Mr. Clinton to capitalize on differences between the president and many senators in his own party over how to handle the politically explosive gay rights issue.

If the Senate hadn't been eager to leave town last night for a 10-day recess, the delay might have lasted a lot longer.

"The notion that gridlock is over because one party has the White House, a huge majority in the House and a significant majority here, may not be correct," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico. "We are not going to be able to stop them on our side, but they are going to have trouble keeping some of the Democrats happy."

Administration officials sought to put all the blame for the delay on the family leave bill on the Republicans, and predicted they would bear the political fallout for it.

But President Clinton, his wife, Hillary, and Mr. Gore all demonstrated yesterday how concerned they are about keeping the Democratic troops in line with an extraordinary display of White House lobbying that kept the Secret Service motorcade crews busy all day.

The president, making his second visit to the Capitol in a week, met with about 75 House Democratic whips, who are charged with rounding up votes on party issues.

He told them he was worried about the reaction inspired by press accounts of various tax and spending cut proposals he is considering and urged them to keep an open mind until he unveils his economic package Feb. 17.


"He said please don't dump on all these options before he even gets a chance to propose them," recounted one Democratic official who attended the session.

Mr. Clinton is also facing problems with members of his own party over his plan to promote campaign finance reform legislation, which he also wants to make a fast-track measure.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington disputed accounts that the Congress had rebuffed the president outright at a White House meeting Wednesday afternoon. But he acknowledged broad areas of disagreement among the Democrats on virtually every facet of the legislation.

The family leave legislation was the first bill of the new term, chosen for the honor by virtue of the strong bipartisan support by which it passed Congress twice before, only to be vetoed by President George Bush.

Along with a couple of other bills also supposed to be on the "fast track" this week, the family leave legislation was supposed to have been the easy stuff that Congress could quickly pass and President Clinton could sign into law to demonstrate that the political stalemate in Washington has ended. Instead the bill's rough passage highlighted the difficulties that face the president on more complex issues like deficit reduction and health care reform.

"Gridlock is like AIDS: It can't be cured," said Robert Lighthizer, a tax and trade lobbyist and former Republican staff director for the Senate Finance Committee. "In the House you have a dictatorship by the majority, but in the Senate you practically have to have a consensus to get anything passed."


Hoping to build that consensus, the administration has undertaken a level of legislative schmoozing not seen since the days of Lyndon Johnson or earlier.

In addition to his his meetings on the Hill, Mr. Clinton welcomed House freshmen of both parties at a White House reception, then departed for a New Jersey Chamber of Commerce dinner honoring the New Jersey delegation.

Meanwhile, Vice President Gore joined several of his former Senate colleagues at a news conference supporting new legislation to regulate lobbying, another element of the Clinton administration's government reform effort.

Mrs. Clinton was writing history on her own in the Senate side of the Capitol yesterday, where she met with legislators working on health care legislation. Previously, first ladies' visits to Capitol Hill have been limited to social or ceremonial occasions.

These efforts are bound to have some effect in at least flattering the legislative egos, but policy differences even among Democrats on issues like health care are serious and deep.

"There will be less gridlock probably on the small things," Mr. Lighthizer predicted. "But it will never go away."