Uncertain Congress Prepares to Reconvene
By Helen Dewar
Now his presidency is dominated by scandal, and Congress faces uncertainty as it prepares to reconvene Tuesday and begin dealing with a heavy load of work that begs for strong White House leadership.
Clinton's proposals to expand child care, Medicare and many other programs are not the only possible casualties. Congress could have difficulty pulling together on other difficult issues -- ranging from tobacco and taxes to trade, Bosnia and the financial bailout for Southeast Asia -- without strong presidential involvement, lawmakers have said.
As a result, Lott is urging lawmakers to concentrate on a few major areas, such as education and taxes, rather than trying to pass "a bill a day," as he put it.
The first clue to Clinton's standing with the Republican-controlled Congress will come Tuesday night when he delivers his State of the Union address -- in what is bound to be a highly charged atmosphere -- to members of the House, Senate, Cabinet, Supreme Court, foreign diplomatic corps and the American public via television.
Rarely has a president faced a more daunting challenge. Some lawmakers have raised the possibility of impeachment proceedings if allegations of sexual misconduct and obstruction of justice are proven -- a specter likely to hang over the House chamber as Clinton speaks. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill) said on ABC's "This Week" that the presidential appearance would be "surreal . . . weird." A senior GOP senator said, "The question is whether it would be State of the Union or a state of the wake."
The congressional response to the speech will be a key test, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.) told Washington Post editors and reporters Friday. An enthusiastic response would strengthen the president's hand, Livingston said. But "if it's very quiet, if it sounds like a mausoleum, with everyone sitting on their hands, I think you could probably well judge it's going to be tough."
The problem for Clinton is that people will only listen to a leader if he has "moral authority," Livingston added. "The question is: Does he?"
As of late last week, Republican leaders appeared uncertain about the impact of the president's problems on the session, while insisting it would not affect their agenda, especially as it differs from Clinton's.
"I don't think you can assess that [the impact on the session]," House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said in an interview. "I really think we have to just move forward and see how things shape up."
Lott dodged reporters' questions on the situation Friday, saying only: "The president has proven in the past he can focus on important national and international issues while other things are going on."
But yesterday on ABC's "This Week," Lott questioned "if he [Clinton] is in any condition to make the right call" when it comes to Iraq. "You know it [the scandal] is a distraction," Lott said.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said he believes that Clinton's agenda will nonetheless dominate, and even some Republicans have said other top administration officials will carry the ball on specific bills. But many Democrats have expressed concern that the president's leverage with Congress, which seemed strong only a week ago, will all but vanish unless the allegations are promptly put to rest. "He's hurting, hurting badly . . . and the longer it goes on, the worse it gets," said a senior congressional Democratic aide.
Despite the workload, including many partially finished bills left over from last year, both houses will start slowly. Republican leaders will begin to flesh out the agenda in meetings starting Monday.
For the first three weeks -- until a recess beginning Feb. 13 -- bills to ban human cloning and to rename National Airport after President Ronald Reagan are the only business scheduled so far in both houses.
The Senate had planned an early start on the huge transportation funding bill, amounting to at least $145 billion over six years, that was put off last year. But it may delay action until budget limits are nailed down, lest members' zeal for more highway spending invites a budget-busting frenzy.
One near-certain achievement will be approval of the first balanced budget since the late 1960s, which Clinton plans to propose Feb. 2, with approving nods from GOP leaders. This is three years ahead of the schedule laid down in last year's budget agreement -- the result of a booming economy and a resulting surge in tax receipts.
But there will be a major struggle over whether to use the projected surpluses for debt reduction, tax cuts, spending increases, building up Social Security reserves or a combination of them all. Republicans are pushing constraints on the Internal Revenue Service and a variety of targeted tax breaks, such as elimination of the "marriage penalty," as a down payment on a future overhaul of the tax code.
Both parties are straining to move legislation to implement a national tobacco settlement, but Lott and others have warned that passage is far from certain.
In hopes of seizing the education initiative from Clinton, GOP leaders are pushing a variety of proposals, including tax breaks and vouchers for private schools. Clinton will seek to widen access to child care and Medicare, along with other initiatives stretching from teacher hiring to food safety to pension security. Clinton may propose another minimum wage increase, while Republicans will try to jump-start workplace, regulatory and property rights bills that they have been struggling to pass for several years. Another fight is planned over campaign finance legislation.
More than in many recent sessions, Congress will have to bear down on foreign policy, which is not its favorite subject.
The administration has said it will try to revive its proposal to help replenish International Monetary Fund resources drained in the effort to rescue collapsing Asian economies. Opposition to the IMF proposal, now totaling about $18 billion, has mounted, and some congressional leaders, including Lott, have said that action on it is unlikely until questions about IMF policy are addressed.
The administration also wants to pay this country's back dues to the United Nations; a bill to authorize that payment died last year in an unrelated dispute over abortion.
Congress is likely to fight over continued U.S. military engagement in Bosnia when the administration seeks money for it, probably this spring, and may try to limit the commitment.
A treaty to expand NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic is scheduled to come before the Senate by March; Lott expects approval. The administration also may try again to win "fast-track" trade negotiating authority, which was withdrawn last year in the face of rejection by the House. Struggles involving countries from Iran and Iraq to China are anticipated.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company