Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 1998; Page A04 If congressional Republicans this year stall in passing legislation for a comprehensive tobacco settlement, President Clinton has already signaled what his response will be: He will attack them as shirkers, more interested in partisan politics than the public interest.
And if GOP lawmakers begin to step up their so-far muted criticism of Clinton in the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy, White House aides say they are ready with a response: They will attack the Republicans as shirkers, more interested in partisan politics than the public interest.
It is a curious twist in strategy. When the Lewinsky allegations first broke in late January, the White House line was that Clinton's legal problems and his legislative agenda were two different things, one having nothing to do with the other.
The new line, as advanced by various Clinton aides this week, is that the two things may be linked after all. Increasingly the White House strategy is the same whether playing defense on scandal or offense on legislative battles over tobacco and health care: Use congressional Republicans as a foil.
That strategy was on display yesterday when Clinton spoke to the National Association of Attorneys General and blessed bipartisan tobacco legislation. Noting the unusually light number of working days Congress has scheduled this year, Clinton remarked pointedly: "Most Americans have 200 days left in their work calendar this year but the work calendar schedule in Washington is only 68 days."
And Clinton won a standing ovation from the state officials when he called on them to lobby lawmakers to act quickly on tobacco. "You have to go to the Congress and say, 'A thousand kids a day [who start smoking] is too high a price to pay for another year's delay.'"
So far, Clinton has not spoken directly about the decisions that Republicans will have to make if, as many on Capitol Hill expect, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr this spring hands over the results of his probe of the Lewinsky matter to Congress. Increasingly, though, Clinton political aides are planning for that scenario.
The expectation, they said, is to reprise the same accuse-the-accuser strategy that has succeeded in making Starr an unpopular public figure. Aides said they got an unexpected boost for this approach in recent days, courtesy of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who charged that the Lewinsky controversy had become a distraction to the congressional agenda.
White House aides pounced on the remark, accusing Lott of being more interested in scandal than legislation and wondering why the matter was affecting Senate business.
"We are going to make progress on the people's business, and if they choose to marry themselves up with Ken Starr that's their business," said White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel.
Still, Clinton faces one major problem in lambasting Republicans as not genuinely interested in passing legislation: Some people on his own side have the same lack of interest. House Democrats, in particular, have signaled to the White House that what they want most from this session are clear lines of contrast with Republicans to take into the fall elections. Many Democrats, for instance, have told White House aides it would be fine with them if Republicans block Clinton's "health care bill of rights," which places restraints on cost-cutting measures by health providers. Similarly, a senior House Democratic aide predicted yesterday that many Democratic lawmakers will balk at any bipartisan compromise that is too soft on the tobacco industry.
All the signs from Clinton, however, are that he will be plenty flexible if it means actually enacting a settlement. While Clinton has previously endorsed various Democratic tobacco bills, he blessed for the first time yesterday a bipartisan tobacco bill this one drafted by Sens. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.). "It is a good, tough bill," Clinton said. "I hope it gets wide support."
Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore (D), who took a lead role in brokering a proposed settlement last year, said Clinton came up to him after his speech and declared, "I was born for this fight."
For months, Moore has been frustrated that the White House has not been energetic enough in pushing a settlement. But, contradicting Lott, he said the Lewinsky matter may actually enhance chances for a settlement, since Clinton needs more than ever to show he can produce results. "This distracts the other way," he said. "If you need an accomplishment, you put all the effort into it."
The Chaffee-Harkin-Graham bill, introduced yesterday, takes a strong anti-tobacco stance, calling for a $1.50-per-pack price increase in two years the fastest hike in any proposal and handling the question of liability limits with a novel twist.
Rather than giving the industry the ban on future mass lawsuits it seeks, the bill would allow individuals and groups to sue, but place a cap of $8 billion a year on industry payouts.
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