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WASHINGTON WIRE: Bush-Congress Honeymoon Likely to be Brief

November 16, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ As one of eight or so senators who can claim George Bush as a constituent, Democrat George Mitchell says he’s always had ″a cordial relationship″ with the president-elect despite their political differences and he hopes that will continue.

Of course, it won’t continue. The going will get rough and probably fairly early in the Bush administration.

But for now the Republican president-elect and the Democrats who have firm control of Congress are acting determined to enjoy a bit of a honeymoon.

As soon as his victory was confirmed election night, Bush talked about his determination to work with Congress and he continued that theme Tuesday when he announced his intention to retain Nicholas F. Brady as Treasury secretary.

Bush said Brady ″knows we’ve got to sit down with the Congress on a deficit-reduction agreement and we’ve got to do it soon.″

From an office in the Capitol where he can look down the Mall to the Washington Monument and beyond to the White House, Mitchell picked at a fruit salad and steadfastly refused to pick a fight with the new administration.

″I am very much opposed to the notion that we should be confrontational for the sake of confrontation,″ said the Maine senator who was re-elected last week with 81 percent of the vote - the highest percentage ever received by a Senate candidate in his state.

Bush has a summer home in Maine. The president-elect was born in Massachusetts, grew up in Connecticut and votes in Texas. For political purposes, he likes to claim a kinship with all four states.

Mitchell is involved in another election now, one that gives special weight to his view of how relations might evolve between Bush and the Democrats in Congress.

The Maine senator is one of three candidates for Senate majority leader. The others are Sen. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii.

″I think I have a chance to win on the first ballot,″ said Mitchell of the election that will take place at the end of this month.

But senators are not a readily predictable electorate. There is a history of commitments made and then broken when the secret ballots are marked in the party caucus.

Whoever emerges as the winner in that contest will join House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas near the top of the new president’s VIP list.

While the talk is now of cooperation, the differences on how to deal with the budget deficit are clear.

″I think you begin with a positive attitude,″ said Mitchell. ″On the other hand, it’s obvious there are differences and there will be differences and we must be prepared to actively and aggressively establish our agenda.″

The battleground will be on taxes.

Bush locked himself into a position of rejecting a tax increase. ″Read my lips,″ he told the nation. ″No new taxes.″

The Democratic attitude at this point is: OK, then, you come up with a way to reduce the deficit.

″There’s no question revenues must be a part of it,″ Johnston said. ″That’s not a question of philosophy; that’s a question of mathematics.″

″Spending cuts alone can’t solve the problem,″ said Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. ″You have to talk about revenue.″

But these Democrats have been around a while. They are not suicidal.

When it comes to taxes they have drawn a clear line.

″If George Bush as president of the United States wants to say no new taxes, there will be no new taxes,″ said House Democratic leader Tom Foley of Washington. ″And the Democrats are not going to go pounding on the door begging the president to change his mind on that.″

The next chairman of the House Budget Committee - Rep. Leon Panetta, D- Calif. - called Bush’s no tax pledge ″a potential for confrontation.″

″Republicans will feel a commitment was made that can’t be breached in any way,″ he said, ″and Democrats will say why should we vote for a tax increase if he has made that commitment.″

So, the clearest line that exists is that if a tax increase is needed to achieve meaningful deficit reduction, George Bush will have to propose it. No Democrat will take the heat for him, regardless of the sweet-talk that marks their governmental honeymoon.

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Donald M. Rothberg is the chief political writer of The Associated Press.

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