Weakened Clinton May Embolden GOP
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 1998; Page A16
President Clinton's summer of scandal has shaken the ground under the 105th Congress as it prepares to return for its final month, emboldening Republicans and giving them a new edge over a weakened president and his dispirited Democratic allies.
But there are huge risks as well as high political stakes for both parties, creating an anxious, uncertain and volatile atmosphere, according to lawmakers interviewed last week about the likely legislative fallout from Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and his belated acknowledgment of it.
To at least some extent, the new dynamic is likely to affect nearly everything on the agenda for Congress' finale: from spending and tax legislation to funding for foreign policy, social programs and a raft of other issues ranging from abortion to campaign finance reform.
Key lawmakers of both parties say it is also likely to reduce further the already low expectations for major legislative accomplishments in the period between Congress's return -- the Senate will be back Monday, the House on Sept. 9 -- and the planned adjournment in early October.
"We're sailing in waters for which there are no maps," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), assistant Senate Democratic floor leader. "None of us have been here before, Republicans or Democrats. . . . We don't know what to expect."
House Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed. "Certainly, there's been a big change in the political landscape, but, until we get back, we can't possibly know the impact," he said.
The uncertainty -- and resulting caution -- are heightened by not knowing when independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr will submit his report on potentially impeachable offenses by Clinton and, more importantly, whether the report will contain damaging surprises. Members can only guess on both scores.
Starr's report will determine whether Clinton will be "negotiating from a position of strength or . . . giving in from a position of weakness" on key legislative issues, said Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.).
Still others noted that Clinton's credibility -- and the legislative power that goes with it -- has already been badly damaged. For instance, "when you get into high-stakes battles on appropriations bills, a lot depends on who you believe" about how much is needed for a particular activity, said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "[The Lewinsky scandal] has reduced his ability to muscle the Congress on a whole range of issues," McConnell added.
There is a real risk that the Lewinsky controversy and Starr's report "could complicate everything to the point where other issues won't be seriously addressed," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Especially if Starr's report comes early in September, trying to focus on other issues will be like "whispering in a high wind," added Dorgan.
When Congress left town less than a month ago, it appeared that Clinton and the Republican majority were poised to square off on fairly equal terms on a wide array of politically sensitive issues.
Judging from early indications, Clinton now will be walking a tightrope, beholden to Democrats as his first line of defense in any impeachment inquiry but wary of overly antagonizing Republicans, who control the levers on the impeachment machinery.
"He's dealing with a double-edged sword," said Boehner. "He can't get too far from the Democrats, but he can't provoke a war with us either. So he's left with very few options."
A Democratic aide agreed that congressional Democrats may gain leverage with Clinton, but said Clinton's options still include a veto, probably a president's single strongest point of leverage. Democrats have made clear they expect him to use it when Democratic priorities are at stake.
A case in point is the yearlong stalemate over GOP demands that Clinton accept abortion restrictions on international family planning assistance as the price for new funding for the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations. While Republicans may see the scandal as an opportunity to turn up pressure on Clinton to accept the restrictions, Democratic abortion rights advocates, especially women, would not take kindly to a presidential capitulation on the issue.
Democrats, who already were swinging into high gear on issues such as managed health care, campaign finance legislation and a minimum wage increase, are now shifting into overdrive in hopes of changing the subject from Lewinsky to issues that can do them some good in the November elections. Clinton himself began doing the same thing in a Massachusetts appearance Thursday.
For all their anger at Clinton over his personal behavior, Democratic lawmakers are marching in step with the White House on most issues. It serves the purposes of Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to try to refocus attention on these causes, even if they have to keep each other at arm's length.
"Democrats are in a pretty strong frame of mind" about trying to get action on their shared priorities, said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who has been sharply critical of Clinton's personal conduct. Daschle said he doubts the scandal has changed the way any lawmakers will vote on issues.
As for Republicans, they will probably intensify pressure for their own agenda, hoping for concessions from a wounded president on a list of issues ranging from abortion to tax cuts and how to conduct the 2000 census. But, chastened by lessons learned in earlier encounters with Clinton, they are wary of overplaying their hand in exploiting his plight.
"As Republicans, we're interested in moving our agenda, and in the current circumstances, Democrats may be more interested in working with us than they would have been a month ago," said Boehner.
Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) agreed that "Republicans will probably see [the president's] weakened position as an opportunity to try to force their agenda," but he predicted that Democrats will join with Clinton to block such attempts.
With or without Starr's report, both parties may decide that the safest course is to wrap up business and go home to campaign as soon as possible, finessing confrontations that could delay adjournment or produce the legislative equivalent of a train wreck.
"The vast majority of Republicans in both houses want to finish up and get out of town," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.). The same is probably true of Democrats because "if they don't go home and tend to business there, they risk having a real debacle in the fall," Livingston noted.
Whether this will lead to compromise or confrontation is a matter of conjecture, according to many members.
"It could go either way," said Boehner. Democrats could compromise or "decide they need to fight for the agenda and be even more confrontational than before," he said.
Democrats noted that it is the Republican "hard right," as Daschle put it, that may decide to provoke a confrontation by insisting on pushing veto-threatened proposals or moving precipitously against Clinton.
As Livingston sees it, both Clinton's personal problems and a federal court ruling last week against the administration's plan to use statistical "sampling" in the 2000 census, which is adamantly opposed by House Republicans, are likely to make it easier to avoid a government-closing deadlock over appropriations bills.
Three years ago, when the government was partially shut down twice because Clinton and Congress could not agree on key spending bills, polls showed that the American people blamed the Republicans rather than Clinton. But with polls now showing that Clinton's credibility has suffered badly from the Lewinsky scandal, the public is less likely to accept his explanations and blame Republicans, Livingston said.
Moreover, a shutdown scenario would throw the congressional session into overtime and, as Livingston observed, Clinton is "not going to want to keep us in town" a minute more than necessary.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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