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The power equation // ON THE NATIONAL STAGE

Newt Gingrich awoke on Wednesday to find himself still in control of a smaller but still solid Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Thus assured of another two years as House Speaker, Gingrich began his day by promising to work "in a bipartisan manner" with President Clinton and congressional Democrats on issues such as Medicare.

Sound familiar? It should. Two years ago, when Gingrich led the Republicans' historic capture of both houses of Congress, he uttered similarly soothing words on the morning after Election Day. Pledging to seek "common ground" with the Democrats, he noted that "the American people don't expect us to block the president at every opportunity . . . they expect us to work with the president."

Of course, the conciliatory words from all sides quickly gave way to harsher rhetoric and rasher actions. Instead of the cooperation that Gingrich correctly sensed the American people were expecting, the next few months were marked by confrontation, stalemate and shutdown. The House Republicans started believing their own revolutionary rhetoric. That made them easy targets for the Democrats' demagoguery.

Is there any reason to believe that the new talk of cooperation will have a longer shelf life? Yes, and it is based on more than the eternal hope for human salvation.

For one thing, the sweet talk sounds more sincere this time around. Gingrich and the other Republican firebrands surely realize that their excesses were largely responsible for resurrecting President Clinton's political fortunes _ just as the president's early excesses were largely responsible for the Republicans' 1994 sweep.

Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott are by nature more confrontational and ideological leaders than Congress is used to. However, they showed in recent months that they are capable of working with Democrats on issues such as the minimum wage increase and the Kennedy-Kassebaum health care reforms. If they can maintain a cooperative spirit on issues such as Medicare and campaign finance reform, they will reap the political benefits.

However, the first substantial steps toward cooperation should come from the president. First, he can put in place a new Cabinet and team of advisers that commands trust and respect on both sides of the aisle. Some retiring Democratic senators, including New Jersey's Bill Bradley and Georgia's Sam Nunn, could bring immediate credibility to the new administration. And by offering important posts to Republican moderates, such as Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and retiring Sen. William Cohen of Maine, the president could demonstrate his commitment to bipartisanship.

Beyond that, President Clinton should make the first gesture toward a bipartisan solution to the Medicare funding crisis. Democrats and Republicans alike have been floating the idea of a bipartisan commission that could make the tough choices while protecting elected officials from the resulting political heat. However, simply appointing a commission and running for cover would be an abdication of leadership.

The president should put the process on the right track by being honest with the public about the kinds of short-term and long-term sacrifices that will be necessary to keep Medicare, Social Security and other entitlements solvent. Then he should invite Republicans to join him in an honest evaluation of those programs. If Democrats and Republicans can build mutual trust on Medicare, the benefits could be felt on any number of less explosive issues.

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