Scandal Weakens Clinton's Leverage on Hill for Other Issues
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 16, 1998; Page A34
The White House sex scandal has weakened President Clinton's leverage for his end-of-the-session test of wills with Congress, spreading gloom among Democrats and giving Republicans a new edge in negotiating issues ranging from taxes and spending to health care, the environment and procedures for the next census.
Democrats worry that Clinton may have lost his ability to use the White House bully pulpit to champion their proposals for regulating managed health care. Republicans say he may feel a greater need to compromise with them on funding levels and tax cuts. And neither side is likely to push too hard to expand Clinton's trade-negotiating powers while the House is considering impeaching him, others have observed.
"It's clear he's weaker than he was a year or two ago . . . and people will no longer believe it if he stands up and blames everything on 'extremists' on the Hill who want to do bad things," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). According to McConnell, loss of credibility arising out of the Monica S. Lewinsky affair has undermined Clinton's ability to blame Republicans for any failures, including another government shutdown if Clinton and Congress deadlock over funding for federal agencies and programs for next year.
In the past, Clinton has been adept at using veto threats to get his way. Only two years ago, Clinton had the upper hand as Congress drew to a close and Republicans -- who had been blamed by the public for the 1995 shutdowns -- cut deals with him on education, health and raising the minimum wage in order to get home and campaign for reelection. Now Clinton is fighting for his political life and he looms as a far less formidable figure.
White House officials insist that Clinton will not retreat from fights with Republicans and that Democrats will remain united behind him on issues they care deeply about, such as health care and increased spending for schools. White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said Clinton has made it clear he will "stand up for his priorities" and veto any bills that violate them.
Moreover, Republicans have learned from painful experience that Clinton can be highly resourceful in getting out of tight political corners. As a result, many Republicans as well as Democrats say it is too early to fully gauge how badly Clinton's legislative clout has been undermined by the possibility of impeachment proceedings arising out of his sexual relationship with Lewinsky.
"There's nobody more charismatic, nobody more capable of playing the role of president, no matter how beleaguered he may be," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.), who will play a key role in many of this Congress's final struggles. "My perception is that he's not as strong" as he was but "we'll just have to see how that plays out," he added.
It is also difficult to predict with certainty how the president's weakened posture will affect the outcome of struggles over specific issues, many of which were already being fought out by the two congressional parties without much presidential influence.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he anticipates little if any change. "The leverage is in the [veto] pen," he said. "It's a hell of a lever."
"It will vary," said Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). "The president still has the power of the veto and will use it. The challenge for the president is leading people on issues where there is a risk for them" in going along with him, which could arise if emergency action is needed in an international crisis. "The jury is still out on that," Kerrey added.
While clearly emboldened, Republicans appear reluctant to overreach and run the risk of a backlash among voters. Even less do they want to do anything to help Clinton change the scandal-dominated headlines to issues that Clinton wants to talk about, such as education, health care and Social Security.
Some White House aides are actually itching for a fight in hopes of changing those headlines, rallying Democrats and making Clinton look strong and engaged, according to sources.
But, in some key areas, Clinton's weakened stature is a source of worry for legislative allies in both parties.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a leading ally of Clinton's in trying to win approval of $17.9 billion to replenish strained resources of the International Monetary Fund, fears that a difficult problem has now been made even tougher. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin "can make any argument he wants" in favor of the funding, but "it's the clout of the president that stands behind him and this president has lost that clout," Hagel said.
While the Senate has approved the full amount, the House Appropriations Committee has approved only $3.4 billion and added an unrelated abortion provision that Clinton has vowed to veto.
In the contentious fight over the administration's plan to use "sampling" techniques in conducting the 2000 census, some Democrats fear Clinton may be forced to compromise or accept a Republican victory.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he trusted the president to veto unacceptable census language but feared the scandal would motivate Republicans to push the president into a corner. "My concern is that Republicans may use this situation with the president to try to muddy the water" by lumping together several appropriations bills to make it harder for Clinton to veto any of them, Becerra said.
Legislation to regulate managed health care passed the House but ran into a partisan dispute in the Senate even before Clinton's fortunes fell. With the possibility of impeachment proceedings now hanging over Congress, Democrats say Republicans -- who embraced the managed-care issue only after they found it was popular with voters -- may be under even less pressure to enact a bill.
Chris Jennings, the White House's main health policy adviser, said the president will continue "to prod Congress on this issue" and stands by his earlier threat to veto any bill that he does not deem effective enough. But a Democratic aide questioned whether he could now help rally public support or cut the deals needed to pass the legislation.
Foes of Clinton's environmental policies are also closing in. Congressional budget writers have refused to fund programs to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. In recent days, some lawmakers have hinted at a possible new attempt to roll back tough new air quality standards adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency last summer.
Republicans say Clinton's difficulties will make it all the harder for him to oppose their $80 billion tax cut plan, and at least some Democrats concede that Clinton's already dim hopes for major increases in education and other domestic spending are probably even dimmer now. The House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to approve the tax cut plan on Thursday -- using projected surpluses to pay for it -- in the face of repeated warnings from the president that he would oppose it.
Several abortion battles remain, including the IMF-related fight to deny family planning assistance to international groups that lobby foreign governments to ease their abortion laws. Many lawmakers contend that the threat of impeachment makes it even less likely than before that Clinton will compromise on abortion in light of his need to keep the support of abortion rights advocates, especially women.
These members of Congress say the White House may wind up being forced to negotiate on other issues, however, including summer jobs programs, low-income energy assistance and funding for Clinton's national service corps, which includes money for Clinton's new reading initiative.
Staff writers Peter Baker, Amy Goldstein, George Hager, Judith Havemann and Joby Warrick contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company