By Helen Dewar and Guy Gugliotta
During President Clintonís State of the Union address, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) was on his feet, clapping and cheering. "Then I went home and I felt awful" because of the presidentís personal problems. "This is the political equivalent of a black hole and it is sucking all the energy" from Congress.
While other lawmakers may not have experienced the intensity of Kerreyís mood swings, many agree that the questions hanging over Clintonís head, unless resolved swiftly, are likely to become a drag on his agenda and spill over onto a broad array of bipartisan initiatives on subjects from tobacco to trade.
"It could get to be a distraction, to say the least, and an impediment at the worst," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
According to some key lawmakers, the scandal could do the most damage in the areas of trade and foreign policy, where the stakes are especially high and where consensus is difficult even in normal times.
"These issues are tough . . . and the president has to convince the American people that itís in the best interest of the country," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.). On these issues, "the president needs to get involved," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.
But some believe that the scandal is making Clinton "as engaged as he has ever been on public policy," as Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) put it. "He revels in it anyway, and this is the way that he blocks out all this other stuff. Thatís how he keeps his wits about him."
Some lawmakers also believe that Clintonís problems might ironically spur both parties to demonstrate they can govern in the face of adversity.
Democrats, buoyed at least for the moment by the response to Clintonís speech Tuesday night and to his first foray into the country Wednesday, will want to dispel any notion of paralysis or meltdown. Republicans, who have grown used to dealing with Clinton from positions of both strength and weakness, will use any opportunity to push their own smaller-government alternatives to Clintonís proposals for greater governmental activism.
And, to the extent that Clinton articulated compelling issues of bipartisan concern in his State of the Union address, such as education, child care and consumer rights for managed health care plans, they will probably have momentum of their own, although fights are assured over the proposed solutions.
"In a curious way, I almost get the sense that we could get more done, not less, because they [members of Congress] will want to show theyíre tending to business," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.).
"The fact is that people from both parties want to get things done," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "The metaphysics count for less than people think."
Although Republicans have gone out of their way to avoid an appearance of trying to profit at Clintonís expense, they clearly sensed an opening.
"The good news is we can achieve many of the same goals and do it better with Republican initiatives," said Sen. Phil Gramm (Tex.). "I think quite frankly we have an opportunity to come forward with our agenda . . . to see that this Congress is not wasted."
It also gives Republicans "more time to shape legislation and do things the way we want. . . . We have a bit more leverage, and we donít have to panic anymore," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (Ind.).
In any case, lawmakers say, the direction of the second session of the 105th Congress, including its balance of political power and the outlook for major accomplishments, is not likely to become clear until more is known about allegations that Clinton had sexual relations with a White House intern and lied about it.
"Itís directly related to how soon the situation is resolved," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "If it drags out, it will be a huge distraction."
"If it gets to the point where people decide heís a congenital liar, then itís going to hurt," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah). "If he can show Monica Lewinsky made it all up and he did not have any kind of sexual relations, then heíll be all right."
For the time being, however, Congress is going about its business in an almost surreal atmosphere of normalcy. The Senate voted to confirm three federal judges and plunged into a typical partisan squabble over naming National Airport for President Ronald Reagan, while the House held the latest in a series of inconclusive votes on a contested California election. Hearings proceeded in both houses on everything from the economy to campaign finance abuses.
With what Lott described as greater-than-normal urgency, leaders of both parties proposed a resolution aimed at showing a united front for tough action against Iraq, including extraordinarily broad language urging Clinton to take "all necessary and appropriate action" to force unimpeded inspections of weapons facilities. Both houses are scheduled to act on the resolution next week.
Many of the domestic issues that will present Clinton with the most difficulty would have been troublesome anyway, such as expanding access to Medicare, increasing the minimum wage and passing new campaign finance legislation.
But, while polls showed wide public support for Clintonís proposal to devote any budget surpluses to shoring up Social Security resources, he may need all the political capital he can muster to keep Democrats from dipping into it for spending programs and Republicans from trying to tap it for tax cuts.
Strong presidential leadership may also be required to forge a consensus on the proposed tobacco deal and steer it toward enactment, many lawmakers have said. "Someone has to crack the whip," said a Republican senator, asking not to be quoted by name.
Most foreign policy and trade initiatives fall in the category of already difficult issues that will require increasing presidential involvement including funding for continued U.S. military engagement in Bosnia, for the International Monetary Fund and for payment of back dues to the United Nations. Even more controversial is Clintonís announced effort to win approval of "fast track" trade negotiating authority, which died for lack of Democratic support in the House last year.
Despite these problems, however, Clinton could be "slightly stronger" on national security matters to the extent that hostile foreign countries seek to take advantage of his troubles, Souder said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company