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Copyright 2000 The National Journal, Inc.  
The National Journal

November 18, 2000

SECTION: CONGRESS; Pg. 3674; Vol. 32, No. 47-48

LENGTH: 928 words

HEADLINE: Gephardt's Private Agony

BYLINE: David Hess


After an icy estrangement during the 106th Congress, House
Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., sat down over coffee
with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., on Nov. 15 to sort
through the aftermath of an election that left the chamber's
Democrats tantalizingly short of the majority they had thought
was within their grasp. The conversation-which followed a
congratulatory concession call Gephardt placed to Hastert the day
after the election-was only the second time this year that the
two men talked privately in any substantive way.

     For Gephardt, who has long dreamed of seizing the
Speaker's mace, the face-to-face session with Hastert was an act
of obeisance to the immutable law of numbers. But as the two
leaders sipped their coffee, Gephardt must have wondered about
his decision to put aside his own presidential ambitions this
year and aim instead for what had seemed a safer bet: Democratic
control of the House.      In private, Gephardt has been agonizing over what went
wrong and how things might have been handled differently,
according to several Democratic colleagues and others close to
him. But, characteristically, Gephardt has put on a happy face in
public. He has spun a sunny scenario for the 107th Congress in
which the two political parties-or major segments of each-might
coalesce to the benefit of the American people.

     Asked by a reporter on Nov. 14 whether he was
disappointed by the election results, Gephardt replied: "Our
disappointment is not disappointment about winning some political
majority or getting some new titles. Our disappointment is in not
being able to assert ... the issues that need to be asserted on
behalf of the American people."

     And asked about what went wrong, Gephardt ducked the
question. "I'm not ready to analyze that because I'm not smart
enough," he said. "(But) we are going to analyze everything we
said and everything we did, and we're going to try to understand
how to do this better. Sometimes you learn more from failure than
you do success."

     Some of his Democratic colleagues are not as reluctant to
venture theories about why the party failed to win House control.
"Our problems seemed to center in a handful of states: Kentucky,
North Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Montana," said
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md. "One explanation is that (Vice
President Al) Gore did not do well in several of those close
districts; not that he was a drag on our candidates, but that his
candidacy prompted a larger-than-usual Republican turnout because
of his association with the (Clinton) Administration."

     Rep. Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., said that Republican
candidates succeeded in many cases in "shaving and blurring the
issues that contrasted the two parties-especially the
prescription drug and patients' bill of rights bills-and we
simply failed to redefine them for what they were." Levin said
that Republicans, "taking their cue" from George W. Bush,
"painted their weaker candidates as compassionate conservatives,
even though there was little compassion in their legislation. And
we let 'em get away with it."

     Added a Democratic leadership aide: "We just weren't mean
and tough enough in defining who the Republicans were, what they
really stood for, and why they can't get much done."

     One particularly bitter Democratic congressional
strategist complained that Gore conceded to Bush a strategic
point that could have helped Democratic candidates. "Bush claimed
that he should be elected because, unlike Gore, he could get
things done by being able to work with Congress," the strategist
said. "Well, that was no more true than his father (former
President Bush) being able to work with Newt Gingrich in the
early '90s," when the then-minority whip undercut Bush's
bipartisan budget deal.

     The private Democratic bitterness stands in contrast to
the olive branch offered publicly by Gephardt, who earnestly told
reporters, "We have an important responsibility in the next two
years to join together with Republicans and get the people's
business done." He promised to "reach out on a daily basis to our
friends in the other party" to enlist Republican moderates to
pass compromise versions of the Democrats' long-standing agenda,
including a patients' bill of rights, a Medicare prescription
drug program, and an increase in the minimum wage.

     Gephardt also plans to try to boost Democratic power in
the internal machinery of the House. "We now hold 49.2 percent of
the House," a Gephardt confidant said. "So we feel we need a
better ratio, particularly on the major committees, both in terms
of members and of staff. We also want more consideration for
fairer rules of debate on the floor, more chances to get some of
our alternatives to a vote there. We know they (GOP leaders) can
continue slamming the door in our face on these things, but we
think it's in everybody's interest to start afresh in a more
cooperative way."

     Republican leaders may not be willing to surrender any of
their power. But the consequence of their not doing so could be
that Gephardt and his fellow Democrats once again put on the war
paint for another bitter two-year campaign to regain House
control that leaves any hopes for bipartisan legislating in the

     David Hess is a correspondent for National Journal News

LOAD-DATE: November 21, 2000

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