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Reduced Expectations Create White House Win

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  • By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, October 16, 1998; Page A18

    Declaring victory on the budget, President Clinton marched out to the South Lawn for a celebratory speech. It was, he said, "a very, very good day for America." And with that, he strolled across the grass, boarded Marine One and helicoptered off to Maryland to broker Middle East peace talks.

    What kind of day it was for America may be up for debate, but there was little doubt it was a pretty good day for Clinton.

    At this point, any Monica-free day is a welcome one at the White House. Yet, yesterday was especially so for a president who just seven days earlier "surrendered" as the House of Representatives voted for an impeachment inquiry against him. With congressional Republicans conceding much of his spending agenda, Clinton demonstrated that he retains political muscle in the domestic arena, even as a happenstance of scheduling allowed him to play international peacemaker at the same time.

    "If the president's so weak, why are they giving in on everything?" crowed Democratic consultant James Carville. Added national economic adviser Gene Sperling, "There's no question that this week solidified that the president maintains significant force to pass and implement his key priorities."

    Still, the triumphant spirit owed as much to the reduced expectations of the moment as to any White House outmaneuvering of Republican congressional leaders. Throughout 1998, Clinton has watched helplessly as his domestic program was eviscerated or ignored: tobacco controls, Medicare expansion, campaign finance reform, child care tax breaks, patient protections and a minimum wage increase all fell by the wayside. So with the midterm elections just weeks away, the White House simply lowered the bar for what it would define as success.

    Last week, key White House officials sat down and crafted a two-front endgame strategy for the last days of the congressional session. Deciding to concentrate almost exclusively on education -- a policy passion for Clinton and a popular Democratic campaign issue -- the advisers picked out a dozen school-related administration proposals to highlight in budget talks.

    With all but a few of these initiatives, according to a senior administration official, there already were signs that Republicans would go along in the end, including money for literacy, after-school and college mentoring programs. Confident that deals were imminent, White House officials quickly went public, naming these as top priorities for which they would fight. When the money came through as expected, they declared victory.

    The aides who gathered a week ago were not so sure of success about two other, more significant proposals, one to lower class sizes by funding 100,000 new teachers and another to build or renovate 5,000 school buildings. But they calculated that even if they lost, those were two easily understood ideas with voter appeal that Democrats could use in the fall campaign.

    In the end, GOP congressional leaders agreed to fund the new teachers but rebuffed Clinton's school construction plan, and the president wasted little time lofting that to the forefront of the campaign. "We can now go out and have a great national debate about that," he said.

    Within the context of the endgame, Clinton won on several other important points he stressed in recent days, such as securing $18 billion for the International Monetary Fund, providing more money for farm relief, excising many Republican environmental riders and preserving surplus funds for future Social Security restructuring.

    Perhaps as important as any single spending item, Clinton managed to rally congressional Democrats behind him and create a unified message for a party wary of how it will fare in the Nov. 3 elections. The last thing Democrats wanted was for the final battle of the session to be last week's vote to launch an impeachment inquiry. Standing at Clinton's side repeatedly in recent days have been his party's leaders on the Hill, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), who not long ago had been sharply critical of his legalistic defense in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation.

    Indeed, Clinton aides were not shy about needling Republicans yesterday for giving in. "The Republican Congress had more caves than Okinawa," said White House counselor Paul Begala.

    Such rhetoric, though, infuriated some Republicans and could have long-term costs for the president. GOP leaders protested bitterly that Clinton demagogued the Social Security and education issues, making it seem as if he were the only one who cared about public schools and retired people.

    House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) noted that Republicans had their own school construction plan that would not have focused only on large school districts with poor students, as Clinton's did. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) seemed particularly peeved with the president's tactics, saying he had "soured the well" by portraying the failed Republican tax-cut plan as an assault on Social Security money.

    "I don't know that I have enough trust in this president to work with him" on Social Security next year, Lott said. "We may have to wait for the next president."

    But some conservative Republicans were disappointed with their leadership for seeming to let Clinton have his way as much as they did. Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) complained that the president got away with expanding government, though he expressed sympathy with the leaders who had to bargain with Clinton.

    "Have you ever tried to negotiate with someone who is dishonest?" he asked. "It's extremely difficult when you've got a president who will resort to extreme and distorted interpretations."

    At the White House, where morale was perhaps higher than it has been in months, that seemed like so much sour grapes. With scandal eclipsed, at least for the moment, aides were happy enough to be passing programs and getting credit for them.

    "We had a good eight days," said deputy chief of staff John D. Podesta, "after a very bad eight months."

    Staff writers John F. Harris, Stephen Barr and George Hager contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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