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Here and in Washington, divided they stand

Both the Florida Legislature and the U.S. Congress are controlled by Republicans. The opposition is led by a lame-duck Democratic governor in Tallahassee and a lame-duck Democratic president in Washington who feel they can do little more than split the difference with Republicans and veto some of their worst excesses. The results so far are mixed: no great disasters, a few notable successes and a lot of political compromise.

This apparently suits the majority of voters. For years the public clamored for more bipartisanship in government, but what they wound up with is divided government, which is not the same thing as bipartisanship. As recent shenanigans in Tallahassee and Washington show, divided government is not always the best government _ or even civil government. It rarely produces bold action or wise policy. In Washington last week, the U.S. Senate, with little serious debate, approved the expansion of NATO, which some foreign policy experts see as a miscalculation of historic proportions. But President Clinton hailed the Senate action as an example of bipartisanship at its finest.

Economic times are good, state and federal treasuries are overflowing with revenue, and the public mood is contented. This was an opportunity to make tough decisions and sound investments in the future. But that isn't happening. There has been no reordering of priorities. The poor still get the shaft, the special interests get the gold, and the politicians get the campaign donations. Democrats don't even put up that much of a fight anymore. As they make their trade-offs, they comfort themselves by saying, it could have been worse. And in some areas, it could have.

In Tallahassee, the Legislature, which adjourned Friday, renamed the Florida Turnpike after former President Ronald Reagan and approved an anti-abortion license plate. Those symbolic issues drew more visceral Democratic resistance than did the state budget and other issues that are far more important to the state's future. The budget fashioned by Republicans falls short of meeting this state's needs in education and other areas at a time when the Florida economy is booming, and tax revenues are pouring in. In fact, the Legislature left $350-million unspent. Floridians will get a modest tax cut, but many children will not have school textbooks to take home. The state's neediest students will get little help in paying for a college education. Lawmakers approved a backdoor scheme for raising local telephone rates, and they showed more interest in property rights than in environmental protection.

Gov. Lawton Chiles, coming to the end of his two terms in the executive mansion, used his line-item veto to kill $96-million in pet projects lawmakers crammed into the budget, but then turned around and agreed to restore $15-million of that. Florida Tax Watch identified almost $350-million in budget turkeys that provided easy targets for the governor. He wasn't all that unhappy with the GOP budget, and Republican leaders weren't all that unhappy with the governor's vetoes. In fact, Republicans saw the savings from the governor's vetoes as more money for tax cuts.

Chiles still has plenty of veto choices outside the budget, and how he uses his veto pen will tell us whether it matters anymore whether a Democrat or a Republican occupies the governor's office. The real difference these days between the Democratic governor and Republican lawmakers is not budget priorities _ Chiles is pleased with GOP funding for education and healthy families _ but on issues such as abortion and school vouchers. In some ways, Chiles has said he found the Republican leadership easier to deal with than the Democrats when they held majority control of the House and the Senate. Some long-time Tallahassee observers say that when in comes to addressing the state's most pressing needs, it's hard to see much difference between Republicans and Democrats.

Now let us consider how divided government is working in Washington, where the Republican-controlled Congress last week was playing another game of political chicken with President Clinton _ trying to attach to urgent legislation narrow amendments pushed by party conservatives and daring the president to veto the bills. They first tried to make payment of this country's United Nations' dues _ now almost $1-billion in arrears _ contingent on the president accepting an amendment denying money to any family planning group that lobbies foreign governments on abortion rights.

The White House warned that the president would veto any measure that included an anti-abortion provision. By the end of the week, Clinton and Republican congressional leaders agreed on an emergency spending bill to finance U.S. troops in Bosnia and recovery costs for natural disasters here at home. The bill did not include an anti-abortion amendment, but neither did it include a penny for U.N. dues or funding for the International Monetary Fund. The president forced Republicans to back down on some of their worst amendments on student loans, assault weapons and food stamps for illegal immigrants. For his part, Clinton yielded to a Republican demand to finance part of the disaster recovery costs by cutting low-income housing assistance by $2.6-billion.

In this period of prosperity and peace, the public mood favors divided government, especially at the federal level. Voters give both the president and the Congress high marks for their performance, and the present division of power might be one they will choose to continue in the 2000 elections. But it could be a different story in Florida, where Democrats are in disarray, and the Republicans are in ascendancy. There is little prospect of the Democrats recapturing control of the House or the Senate. Republican Jeb Bush, meanwhile, is seen _ at least at the moment _ as the man to beat in this year's governor's race.

Democrats will have to convince voters that keeping a Democrat in the governor's office would make a difference. That raises an interesting prospect: the Democratic gubernatorial candidate running on the virtues of divided government. That would be less a testament to the virtues of divided government than to the decline of the Democratic Party in Florida.