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Bipartisan Lip Service

By Carl Leubsdorf

Right after the election, both President Bush and the newly crowned top Democrat, Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi, said all the right things about cooperating to confront the nation's problems.

Mr. Bush noted that he told top Republicans their duty is to "work together with the Democrats and independents on the great issues facing this country." Ms. Pelosi vowed to be "speaker of the House, not speaker of the Democrats."

But their actions have yet to match their words. Both show disquieting signs of stressing partisan stances that would extend the gridlock voters abhor.

Mr. Bush stuck his thumb into the eye of the newly Democratic Senate by resubmitting controversial judicial and diplomatic nominations. He named a foe of contraception, premarital sex and abortion to head the government's family planning agency.

And while dispatching the Pentagon chief who symbolized U.S. failure in Iraq, Mr. Bush repeatedly insists he'll stay in Iraq until the U.S. mission succeeds and continues to rebuff talk of bringing Iran and Syria into the situation.

Ms. Pelosi, meanwhile, put loyalty to a Democratic ally ahead of a broader approach by backing Rep. John Murtha's ill-fated challenge to Rep. Steny Hoyer for majority leader. She has compounded her error by rebuffing the bid of fellow California Rep. Jane Harman, a moderate who initially backed the Iraq war, to chair the Intelligence Committee.

On Tuesday, she also ruled out Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida, and is reportedly seeking a compromise: Rep. Silvestre Reyes of El Paso, Norm Dicks of Washington state or Sanford Bishop of Georgia. Though well regarded, none carries Ms. Harman's standing.

Fortunately, opportunities abound for Mr. Bush and Ms. Pelosi to go beyond playing partisan games to try to cooperate in seeking bipartisan policy solutions.

With both the government and the country divided, key issues require compromise approaches.

An important first step would be for the White House to institutionalize regular bipartisan sessions with congressional leaders of both parties. Also, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Hoyer should reach out to the top House Republican, Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, to re-establish the normal, routine consultation that was the rule before the 1994 GOP takeover.

That is less of a problem in the Senate, where the new majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, and the new minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have a working relationship from the days when both served as their party's assistant leaders.

These areas are ripe for action:

Ethics: Ms. Pelosi has announced that ethics reform will be the House's first order of business in January. What better way for both parties to show they heard the voters than to cooperate on curbing the influence of lobbyists and other perceptions of dubious behavior.

Minimum wage: President Bush could send a strong signal by accepting Democratic proposals to raise the minimum wage.

The budget: Two distinguished former congressmen, Republican Bill Frenzel of Minnesota and Democrat Leon Panetta of California, proposed a bipartisan summit for the White House and lawmakers to seek long-term budgetary solutions.

It would presumably discuss solvency for Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement programs, possibly as part of a package in which both parties made compromises, the Democrats by agreeing to future benefit cutbacks and Republicans to some tax increases. An important first step would be for Mr. Bush to indicate, as some aides already have, that the White House is no longer insisting on private investment accounts as essential.

Immigration: The House Democratic takeover has opened the way for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, including a path for illegal immigrants to citizenship. Congressional Democratic positions on the issue are closer to those of Mr. Bush than those of the former House GOP majority.

Iraq: The toughest subject of all. Though an increasing proportion of the public favors an end to the U.S. involvement, Mr. Bush is still resisting any date to start withdrawing troops. Democrats, especially in the House, are split between those wanting a quicker and a slower exit.

A party conference next week may help to forge a unified House Democratic position, but it still is unclear how far James Baker's bipartisan study group and Mr. Bush will go in accepting an early reduction in American troops.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington Bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is

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