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  •   GOP Vows Cooperation With White House

    Lott and Hastert, AP
    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) after meeting with President Clinton Tuesday. (AP)
    By John F. Harris and David S. Broder
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, February 24, 1999; Page A6

    After months of seeking to drive President Clinton from office, Republican congressional leaders yesterday came out of a meeting at the White House professing a new desire to work cooperatively with him on Social Security and other issues.

    With polls showing the GOP majority badly hurt by the impeachment trial, the party's senior lawmakers yesterday were eager to show that they could quickly pivot away from scandal and work constructively with a president who only weeks ago they said was unfit to serve.

    "Our job here in Washington is to do the people's business, and that's what we're going to do," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who went to the White House with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and their Democratic counterparts. "We're going to work together, hopefully across the party lines in the Congress and with the administration, to do what the American people expect of us."

    Clinton too is making essentially the same calculation. Putting aside what various aides say is a deep anger toward Republicans, Clinton put out the White House welcome mat in a fashion designed to show the public that he will not let political and personal grievances interfere with a policy agenda.

    The morning session over bagels and scones in the Cabinet Room lasted a little more than an hour and was, in fact, most noteworthy for the fact that it happened at all -- it was the first time since the summer of 1997 that Clinton hosted a bipartisan congressional meeting to talk issues.

    The discussion, according to a variety of participants, skated on the surface of the most pointed differences over taxes and social entitlements between Clinton and Congress's GOP majority, reaching no agreements on either substance or even the schedule for taking up issues such as Social Security or Medicare reform.

    Moreover, there was plenty of suspicion on display behind closed doors. While Republicans have endorsed Clinton's proposal to save 62 percent of the budget surplus for Social Security, Lott said he feared the president's plan to dedicate an additional 15 percent to Medicare was intended primarily as a tactic to forestall Republican tax cut proposals, congressional sources said.

    And House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), one participant said, responded to Clinton's pledges that he wanted to work cooperatively on Social Security by saying that Republicans believe they have been burned by the president in the past on entitlement issues. Armey said Republicans feel like Charlie Brown, the hapless comic strip character who is fooled over and over by Lucy when he goes to kick the football.

    But Republicans have apparently decided that it does not help them to vent such suspicions in public. On the White House driveway after the session ended, the snarling that has marked Washington's political rhetoric for the past year turned to a purr.

    Lott skirted a question about his comment just weeks ago that he did not know whether he could ever trust Clinton: "The issue is, will we work together to get our job done?"

    Jon Bond, a Texas A&M political scientist who has studied White House-congressional relations, was skeptical, recalling that Republicans initially spoke of bipartisanship at the beginning of the impeachment drama. "We've heard this tune before," he said, adding that while some Republicans are eager to pursue a more moderate course, "You've still got those real firebrands" who will stoutly resist compromise with Clinton.

    But Republican Kenneth Duberstein, a White House chief of staff at the end of the Reagan administration, said Washington's dynamic is moving both sides away from confrontation. "I think there is a narrow window [for passing legislation] because of the compelling need for both parties to show that both sides can govern and can find common ground," he said.

    After leaving the White House, legislative leaders from both parties gave the nation's governors an upbeat assessment of legislative prospects, promising action on education and tobacco issues vital to the states.

    Lott drew the biggest cheers from the Republican-dominated group. "I want to do everything I can to free you of mandates and government controls," he said. "I trust you to make the best decisions for your people."

    The leaders promised early consideration of a bill to allow states to waive many federal education aid regulations if they promise to apply performance measures to their schools. They also said they would heed the plea that the federal government start paying its share of the costs of mandated special education programs for developmentally disabled students.

    In addition, the governors also pressed the congressional leaders to resist the temptation to cut back on welfare block grants to the states as their welfare rolls decline. In the welfare overhaul act of 1996, Congress agreed to keep funding level for five years. But with the dramatic drops in case loads, many states are building up surpluses they would like to use for other purposes. A move is expected to trim the federal payments.

    "They think we're getting rich on it," said Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R), "but it would be wrong if we were punished for being successful."

    Thompson and others said that the hard-core cases remaining on the rolls would be harder and more expensive to help and that reserve funds were needed in case the economy slips and welfare rolls rise. Lott said he agreed but cautioned that "budgeteers" may have different thoughts.

    Hastert, Lott and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) lent support to a bill, strongly backed by the governors, that would waive the federal government's claim to a share of the $195 billion settlement of the states' suits against tobacco companies.

    Clinton told the governors Monday he didn't want any of the money coming to Washington as long as there were assurances it would all be spent on health and children's programs in the states. But Clinton included almost $20 billion of tobacco settlement money in his budget for the five years beginning in fiscal 2001, making some governors skeptical about his avowed position.

    The governors are supporting bipartisan legislation barring the federal claim and placing no restrictions on state use of the money. A White House spokesman said the bill sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is unacceptable in its present form.

    Staff writers Helen Dewar and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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