WASHINGTON -- Claiming that their control of Congress had been validated by voters, Republican leaders nevertheless approached their second term in a chastened mood yesterday, pledging cooperation with President Clinton rather than confrontation.
"We got a reaffirmation," said Haley Barbour, the Republican national chairman. "It said that American people liked the decision they made in 1994."
Despite Clinton's commanding victory, the Republican chairman called Tuesday's election "a victory for Republican ideas of smaller government and lower taxes" that were embraced by Clinton.
But it was clear from their temperate remarks that leading Republicans are well aware of one lesson since 1994: Many voters are frightened by talk of "revolutionary" changes to downsize the government and scale back popular programs like Medicare.
The Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate -- although the result in an open GOP seat in Oregon awaits the count of absentee ballots -- to boost their margin of control to 55-45.
In the House, 13 of 71 Republican freshmen seeking re-election were tossed out, and a 14th must fight again for his job in a runoff election in Texas next month. House Republicans maintained a narrowed majority of about 20 seats, a figure that will remain imprecise until three runoffs in Texas are concluded. Before Tuesday, the Republican edge in the House was 236-198.
"I think you'll see us try to reach out and find a common ground with President Clinton," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had begun the last term of Congress insisting that the newly empowered Republicans would not compromise on their agenda.
"We don't have to live in a world of confrontation. I think we can find common ground to work on things," he said.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, who during the budget battles of 1995 was often openly contemptuous of the president, agreed that a new approach is called for.
"We've all learned a great deal," Armey said. "The president pretty well ran on our themes, and I think that gives us a great deal of opportunity to work together and to move forward on the commonly shared legislative agenda."
Trent Lott of Mississippi, who will begin his first full term as Senate majority leader, sounded a similar note, looking ahead to joint efforts with the Democratic White House on a balanced budget, tax reform, Medicare changes and campaign finance reform.
"There was a lot of cynicism and a lot of arrogance in this campaign, and there's some bitterness from it, perhaps on both sides," Lott told reporters. "But the campaign's over. We need to move beyond that. We have work we need to do."
Unlike in the last term, when the Republicans rushed into action unilaterally to try to push through their "Contract with America" -- the campaign document they tried to turn into a blueprint for governing -- Lott said party leaders were prepared to let Clinton have the first "at-bat."
"We're not going to rush out there January the 8th and start trying to pass 'X' number of bills in the first 100 days," the Senate majority leader said. "Let's see what he has to say and see what he proposes. We will consider that."
As he was flying back to Washington yesterday from his victory party in Little Rock, Ark., Clinton eagerly endorsed the Republican leaders' sentiments.
"We couldn't have asked for a better relationship with Congress than we had in the last six weeks of this last session," the president said, referring to the pre-election burst of productivity that led to the passage of popular laws to reform welfare, expand access to health insurance and raise the minimum wage.
"If we can somehow re-create for the next four years the spirit that prevailed in the last six weeks of the Congress, we can do great things," Clinton said.
The financial markets also were clearly pleased by the prospect that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president would keep each other in check. The Dow Jones industrial average surged by 96 points, the largest one-day point gain since March.
A collegial bipartisan relationship could be soured, however, by the work of Republican congressional investigators who are looking into ethics allegations against the Clinton administration.
"We have a responsibility in a variety of ways to take a look at the allegations and what appears to be wrongdoing, and I'm sure that will occur in the normal course of events," Lott said. "But that is not going to be our primary and our principal focus."
Lott said a Senate committee would likely raise questions about the fund-raising activities of John Huang, the Democratic National Committee aide and former Commerce Department official suspected of raising campaign money from foreign business interests.
A House committee already has inquiries under way into the alleged misuse of FBI files by the Clinton White House.
"They'll have to resolve that on their own," Clinton said yesterday of the Republican investigators, who spent much of the two previous years looking into the Whitewater matter. Democratic leaders, who had held out hopes of moving into the top jobs Tuesday night if their party had won back either house of Congress, were mostly quiet and out of reach yesterday.
"If there's a mandate in this election, it's a mandate for moderation and bipartisan cooperation," Senate Democratic leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota said in a statement issued by his office.
Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic leader who expected that he would claim the speakership, was equally subdued.
"I think it's incumbent now on the Republicans and on us to try to reach bipartisan, sensible solutions to the budget, campaign finance reform and everyday problems people face," Gephardt told reporters in St. Louis.
Each party is scheduled to re-elect its leaders within weeks, but there are no expected changes in the top posts.
A final tally on the new makeup of the Senate was dependent on the outcome of the Oregon race between two self-made millionaires who battled to a virtual tie to replace the retiring Republican incumbent, Mark Hatfield.
The Republican candidate, Gordon Smith, was slightly ahead yesterday with 49 percent of the votes, while Democrat Tom Bruggere, founder of a computer soft-ware company, had 47 percent.
In a cliff-hanger House race, Nancy L. Johnson, a Connecticut Republican, squeaked past her Democratic challenger, Charlotte Koskoff. The Democrat had accused Johnson, who is head of the House Ethics Committee, of failing to aggressively pursue ethics allegations against Gingrich.
Meanwhile, Robert K. Dornan, an outspoken California Republican, was fighting for his political survival in a dead heat with a wealthy Mexican-American Democrat assisted by a growing Hispanic presence in the district.
But the equally outspoken Cynthia A. McKinney, a liberal Georgia Democrat who is black, was a clear winner against a moderate white Republican in a redrawn district that is predominantly white.
Pub Date: 11/07/96