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Can the Democrats govern?

Barely five months into one-party government, Washington is wondering if it is all it was cracked up to be.

During the presidential campaign, the promise was held out that having a president and Congress of the same stripe would produce harmony and legislation. So far, the principal products are discord and rancor in the party in charge, the Democrats. It's not easy to keep score on the crosscurrents of hostility, and some see on Capital Hill a fairly faithful representation of the recent Orioles-Mariners brawl: "Worst fight I've seen in 17 years," says the ump.

In the first place, House Democrats are steaming at the president. They are lining up to tell the cameras how seduced, abandoned and betrayed they feel. The president gave up on the Btu tax, a little-understood levy on energy, and offered the Senate a chance to vote instead on a gas tax, a far riskier proposition with the voters, who understand perfectly what it is. But there is much melodrama about plank-walking, sawed-off limbs and other metaphors of caddish behavior on the part of their leader.

The Congressional Black Caucus is even madder because the president dumped the group's heroine, Lani Guinier, for civil rights chief. Ms. Guinier, charming and dynamic as she was in a farewell press conference, doubtless would have gone down to defeat before the timorous Senate Judiciary Committee, but that is beside the point. The point is, members are not speaking to Clinton, so there.

The House is also mad at the Senate. This is not news. The House hates the Senate, for its hoity-toitiness, its inability to muster votes, its silly rules and the self-importance that comes from having a six-year term. Senators strut about; House members scamper as if the devil himself was after them. He is: They have to run every two years.

Members are hemmed in by whips and task forces and numerous caucuses. Their whips, like overseers of plantation times, are constantly checking them for steadfastness and loyalty.

The Senate doesn't have a whip system worthy of the name. Senators are offended when anyone who is not the head of a large political action committee asks them for a vote.

Asking them about what side they will come down on produces haughty silence. Says Rep. Butler Derrick, D-S.C., a member of the House leadership: "I don't know any senator who doesn't think the American people picked the wrong president last November, the right one being himself."

At Democratic whip meetings, Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., frequently asks his charges, "Who is the peacock of the day over there?"

"When one of them spreads his tail feathers, it's bad for us, bad for the country."

The principal peacocks are Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., and Sen. John Breaux, D-La. Boren, a round-faced, round-eyed man who looks like somebody in a 19th-century album, has never been mistaken for a partisan, much as he would like to be his party's standard-bearer. During the Iran-contra hearings, he prefaced every question with a salute to the contras. Nowadays, he gets as much air time as Bryant Gumbel, alternately professing to have been won over to the president and proclaiming to have found yet another pea under the mattress of unity.

Breaux an easy-talking good ole boy with some complicated objections, had his resistance met with voter accolades down home.

Will the Democrats come to realize, before the final vote on the deficit reduction plan, that they and the president are in it together, and that what is at stake is not just taxes and cuts, but, as Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., puts it, "the question of whether the Democrats can govern"?

Right now, it doesn't look that way. Said one Southerner, "They feel they're in better shape than he is."

The feeling was intensified by the victory of a Republican seeking a Senate seat in Texas, but somebody said it was more about Sen. Bob Krueger, "a man who quoted Dante in West Texas." Krueger, very much the man of the '90s, was both for and against Clinton's economic programs.

Universal Press Syndicate