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Campaign Looms Over Budget Talks

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  • Negotiators Near Deal on Spending Bill (Washington Post, Oct. 15)

  • Campaign '98

  • By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, October 15, 1998; Page A14

    Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) compared the past week to a "swap meet" where it took too long to close the deal. Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) called it a high-stakes game of "chicken." Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) said he, personally, was "held prisoner" by the Republicans, but gloated that they have given President Clinton "the opportunity to be Mark McGwire."

    It was brinkmanship time in Congress. The election campaign was at its peak and Clinton was under threat of impeachment. Everybody needed to win something in the congressional endgame, and as the final moves played out in yesterday's race to fund the federal government, it was time to reflect on winners and losers and prepare, finally, to get out of town.

    How badly did they want to go home?

    Abercrombie, the bearded, weight-lifting liberal from downtown Honolulu, has a very tough reelection race, and "while I'm held prisoner, they're going to run hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads against me." He confessed to a significant degree of angst. Among all House members, no one had further to travel.

    But Abercrombie and most other Democrats also contended Republicans have made an immense blunder by giving Clinton and party leaders an opportunity to talk about education, social security and HMOs "all day, every day" for a week, so voters could focus on something besides presidential impeachment.

    "Of course the president is in his bully pulpit. He's got nothing else to do, because we haven't put any legislation on his desk," Abercrombie said, as the negotiators toiled to a conclusion. "Bill Clinton must be the luckiest politician who ever walked. Every day we're here, he . . . gets stronger."

    The point was not lost on Republicans, who expressed a certain amount of frustration at being bested by Clinton in the daily spin game, an eerie reprise of the government shutdowns of 1995-96, the modern-day GOP debacle against which all others are measured.

    "Our problem is not the real facts. It's perception," and Congress "has been losing that battle to the president for 200 years," said Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Ala.). "The media give him 30 seconds or five minutes every day on the evening news. We get nothing. You have to compliment the president and his lieutenants and their ability to get their message out."

    Callahan, known among his GOP colleagues for his wry wit, earned a laugh at an early afternoon Republican meeting when he suggested that to "win" the endgame, Republicans had "to counter demagoguery with demagoguery." He said later that "we needed a little levity."

    And Thomas, a tax specialist and serious endgame player for years, displayed some prescience a few hours later when he suggested that everybody ought to calm down because "we're into haggling. It's like a swap meet, and after half an hour you wonder why it takes so long."

    He gave both parties high grades for adroit use of the fear factor, noting that "our gimmick" was to pass an emergency spending bill funded at current levels "until we have an advantage," while "their gimmick is to wait until the eleventh hour and blackmail you with the possibility of a government shutdown."

    Still, Thomas, a noted bare-knuckle partisan brawler, wondered out loud why the GOP House leadership didn't schedule the impeachment inquiry vote at the very end of the session, leaving impeachment the last thing in the public's mind as members went home to their districts. "I think it's a legitimate question."

    Rep. David I. McIntosh (R-Ind.), one of the House's sophomore firebrands, was not feeling jovial in the waning hours, and proposed passing an emergency bill to last until after the Nov. 3 elections, then coming back for a fresh debate. His suggestion was not particularly well received.

    House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) "said the president would veto it and didn't say much more," said McIntosh, apparently not overjoyed with Gingrich.

    Fellow conservative Souder said Clinton wanted to turn the budget endgame "into a campaign issue," by "playing chicken on a narrow range of issues."

    "That's reflective of a position that says if you give up too much, you lose," he added. "We have to have something to win on, too."

    But Souder was not worried about losing, and pointed to harried Democrats, like Abercrombie, as the prime reason for optimism: "We don't have a need to leave, because our incumbents are all ahead," Souder said, reflecting the sunshiny picture being painted at Republican campaign headquarters. "House Democrats are the ones who have the most to lose if we stay here."

    But Abercrombie said that by trying to hold Democrats hostage, Republicans "are mistaking a tactic for a strategy." The extra week, he said, has turned the Republicans' endgame "into an unmitigated disaster."

    And after a week, Abercrombie was even able to be philosophical about his own situation. "It is physically impossible for me to go home and come back the next day," he said. "So I'm at peace with this. I can't work any harder. There's nothing I can do about it."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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