A Cautious Reunion Awaits Clinton on Hill
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 5, 1998; Page A12
On Capitol Hill this morning, a hearing room in the Cannon House Office Building will be the setting for a guarded reunion between a president and lawmakers of his own party who for years have viewed each other with a wavering combination of mutual mistrust and mutual need.
Six months into the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy and three months before the midterm elections, need is proving more powerful for President Clinton and congressional Democrats. Numerous Democratic House members yesterday said that -- despite what many acknowledge is acute anxiety about the potential fallout from Clinton's legal problems -- they believe their own political interests dictate sticking with a president who continues to enjoy high job-approval ratings.
Democrats, in an uphill battle to regain the House, said they are counting on Clinton to raise money and to lead a partisan charge against Republicans on issues such as the budget and proposals for a "patients' bill of rights."
Some legislators even noted what for them is a welcome side effect of the investigation. A weakened Clinton, they believe, is more dependent on congressional Democrats -- and therefore less likely to pursue the strategy of bipartisan compromise that the White House has often favored. House Democrats have long argued they are better off when there are clear lines of division between the parties.
"Whenever there's political controversy surrounding him he identifies with the left, his staunchest supporters," said Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.). "Now is the time to revisit health care, to revisit affordable housing. Now is the time for the president to speak to his most loyal supporters about their serious economic needs."
Today's meeting with House Democrats was scheduled long before Clinton agreed to testify to the grand jury in the Lewinsky case. White House aides said Clinton has no intention of raising the Lewinsky controversy. The aides said Clinton will be prepared to respond to concerns about the matter if lawmakers raise them, but added that past trips by the president to Capitol Hill -- the last one was in September 1997 -- suggest that no one will want to press him on such a sensitive subject.
Instead, White House aides predicted a more buoyant session, with Clinton hoping to rally the Democrats as they prepare for the fall campaign.
Clinton and congressional Democrats this year have been acting in concert to a degree that they had not in several years. This period of cautious cooperation is at least the third phase in a tumultuous relationship.
In 1993, Clinton came into office pledging to craft his agenda in coordination with Democratic congressional leaders, and the 1993 budget bill was enacted with exclusively Democratic votes. But the partnership began deteriorating almost immediately over the budget and other issues, and, after Democrats lost their congressional majority in 1994, many legislators were publicly venting their anger at Clinton. The president rehabilitated himself in 1995 and 1996 in part through a strategy his political guru, Dick Morris, called "triangulation" -- distancing himself from congressional Democrats and Republicans alike. During the critical hours of last year's balanced-budget talks, White House aides closeted themselves with GOP leaders -- leaving infuriated Democrats in the dark.
But those tattered relationships have been partly mended. For the past year, White House deputy chief of staff John D. Podesta has been leading weekly delegations of White House political advisers to Capitol Hill to help coordinate strategy with the senior staffs of House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). Clinton has pledged to take the lead in a Democratic "Unity Fund" trying to raise $18 million to be split evenly between the Democratic National Committee, and the campaign committees of House and Senate Democrats. He will star at a Unity Fund dinner tonight, as he did last night at a fund-raiser for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
Beyond Clinton's financial help, House Democrats say there is enough enthusiasm for Clinton and the fall campaign agenda they have jointly crafted to prevent members from fleeing the president. Despite a strong desire by many lawmakers for Clinton somehow to neutralize the controversy with a public explanation of his relationship with Lewinsky, some Democrats say the investigation so far has not had much political fallout.
"It's as though we are in two worlds," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) said in a telephone interview yesterday. "One is our world of normal work, interacting with the president as usual. Then there's this other world in which we're observing the high drama of a president under challenge. The remarkable thing is that the two worlds don't seem to intersect . . . although I don't know how long we'll continue to enjoy this separation after the [independent counsel's] report comes in."
"Right now he has a great deal of support," said one House Democrat who asked not to be identified. "I don't know if it's personal support, but people will defend him."
But frustration is rising. One reason, according to a political consultant working on several congressional races, is that the enormous news media attention being devoted to the legal controversy is making it virtually impossible for any other political news to catch voters' eyes. "Nothing gets through," the consultant complained. "Only 25 percent of the American people ever knew there was a tobacco bill."
Most Democrats represented by this consultant most of all want Clinton "to stand up to Republicans instead of caving every time." The consultant added that Democrats "know they have the upper hand on him now -- if they start to break [away from him publicly] he is screwed."
Members are particularly concerned about how Clinton will negotiate with the House GOP leadership over the 13 annual spending bills, many of which contain provisions Democrats have labeled unacceptable. "I'm hoping he'll be helpful and will work with us, to the point of even vetoing some of these bills," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.). "On all of these policy questions I think we're together, and at least that's what I expect to come out of the meeting."
White House aides said Clinton is following the same formula he has followed for several years -- emphasizing "progress ahead of partisanship" but confronting Republicans when they pursue extremist positions.
At today's meeting, he will recite what aides say will soon become his new issues mantra: "Social Security, patients' rights, public schools and clean environment."
The slogan refers to Clinton's proposal to avoid spending the budget surplus until the long-term solvency of Social Security has been ensured, his support for more expansive rules governing health maintenance organizations than Republicans support, and his budget proposals for education and the environment.
People should get used to the phrase. Clinton, aides said, intends to make it the 1998 version of the "Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment" mantra that he repeated ad infinitum in the 1996 election.
Staff writer Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
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