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The past few months haven't been the best for Congress. The hours have been long, the debates have been contentious.

And as we left for Labor Day weekend, the American people seemed to respect Congress and its members less and less.Now some suggest that if members of Congress could just exercise a little more "bipartisanship," America would be better-served and the public would hold us in higher regard. I disagree.

When principles coincide, bipartisanship should prevail. But sacrificing principles will neither be good for America nor good for our government.

There have been appropriate moments of bipartisanship in the past couple of years. Republicans joined with the Democrats in quickly confirming President Clinton's Cabinet and Supreme Court nominees.

And the North American Free Trade Agreement was possible only because Republicans stood with the president, who was opposed by Democratic leaders in the House and most Democrats in Congress.

On these occasions, Republicans worked in a bipartisan manner with Clinton for important, substantive reasons.

In the first case, we helped confirm nominees because we believe presidents should have a fairly free hand in choosing them, barring extraordinary circumstances.

For NAFTA, we supported the president because we believe in free trade.

But we opposed the president on other issues - the budget, the crime bill, his health-care plan - because the legislation went in the wrong direction.

On each of these issues, the president and the Democratic Congress have pursued the most partisan approach in my memory. Perhaps it was because they knew they were promoting some of the most liberal legislation in memory.

Republicans were locked out of the budget-writing process, our ideas to cut spending were ignored, and the result was a massive tax increase: more than a quarter of a trillion dollars.

On health care, Republicans - and everyone else - were kept in the dark as the White House crafted in its huge plan in secret.

And on crime, the Democrats closed the doors, added billions in pork and subtracted the tough anti-crime provisions that had been in the bill approved by the Senate.

The only reason the bill was ultimately changed - so that it cost less and concentrated more on crime - was that so many House Democrats joined with their Republican colleagues to insist on it.

If the president hopes for bipartisanship next year, in a Congress I hope will include even more Republicans, then he must begin with better public policy, a feat that will become more likely if more conservatives and more Republicans are included in the policymaking process.

But bipartisanship must never become the primary goal of any member of Congress.

We have a two-party system for a very good reason: We represent different views.

Personal attacks and petty jealousies have no place in our political system. But honest debate and dissent do.