The once strained relationship between President Clinton and House Democrats has warmed considerably in recent months, with both sides cooperating on a range of issues to advance their party's agenda and put Republicans on the defensive.
Clinton met recently with a group of House Democrats to plot strategy on gun control, and they are also working closely on education and managed health care reform. Once wary that the president would cut a private deal with Republicans on Social Security, Democrats now appear confident that they are working in tandem with the White House.
The closer ties could help Clinton end his often-embattled presidency on a high note and boost Democratic hopes of retaking the House next year. They also could create more headaches for GOP leaders as they try to fashion tax and spending plans for the year, since they almost certainly would not have the votes to override any presidential veto.
"This is probably the best time we have had, in terms of communicating, agreeing and not being blindsided," said Rep. Robert Menendez (N.J.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus. "We have been blindsided in the past."
The congressional-White House coordination became noticeable late last year, when Democrats used the budget negotiations -- in which Republicans were later criticized by their base for cutting a back-room deal and boosting spending -- to attack the GOP on education just before the fall elections. Now that House Democrats are within striking distance of seizing the majority, this collaboration has only intensified.
Several reasons account for the rapprochement. As he sees the clock ticking down on his presidency, lawmakers and analysts say, Clinton realizes that greater cooperation with his party's legislative leaders could help him achieve a few more policy goals. There's also none of the political rivalry that would exist if House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) or other prominent congressional Democrats had chosen to challenge Vice President Gore's bid for the 2000 presidential nomination.
But in many ways, the relationship between Clinton and the House Democrats is a marriage more of convenience than of love. During former House speaker Newt Gingrich's tenure, the Republicans held a large enough majority that the White House could afford to broker deals with the GOP and then rely on a handful of centrist Democrats to provide the needed margin of victory.
That cross-party coalition delivered Clinton and the GOP Congress some of their most visible accomplishments: the North American Free Trade Agreement, tougher welfare rules and the budget deals of 1996 and 1997. But it also alienated House Democrats, who felt they faced retribution at the polls for pushing Clinton's health care revision plan in the 103rd Congress and then were subsequently punished for that loss.
In contrast to the Senate, where Clinton has always enjoyed better relations, many House Democrats also dislike Clinton personally over what they see as his disloyalty. They still fume over such episodes as Clinton's surprise statement in October 1995 in Houston that he felt he had raised taxes too sharply -- this, after pressuring congressional Democrats to embrace his tax plan in 1993.
But this year, Clinton can't afford to ignore House Democrats. Should the president decide to veto GOP-crafted spending bills, Menendez said, he will need the Democrats solidly behind him -- and that requires some care and feeding.
"If we are going to give him veto-proof minorities on these appropriations bills," the congressman said, "we want to be intricately involved in this process."
Clinton signaled his agreement in a meeting last week with congressional Democrats, saying, "When we're together, we end up with the best policies and the best politics at the end of the day."
It's hardly surprising that Clinton and congressional Democrats sometimes are at odds, said James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. Especially in the House, he said, Democrats tend to be more liberal than Clinton, and thus they chafe when he joins Republicans in trimming programs such as welfare. "It's caused a lot of friction," Thurber said.
When Clinton misled lawmakers and the nation on the extent of his sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, he said, "that's when the Democrats got exceedingly angry with him." In light of this history, he said, "I think it's amazing that they're getting along as well as they are."
Several Democrats credited White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta with helping repair the breach. Podesta began holding regular weekly meetings with House and Senate leadership aides a year and a half ago, and he is much closer both politically and personally to Gephardt and other lawmakers than was former chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles.
"Erskine started from right and moved to the center," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.). "John tries to move from left-of-center to the center."
Clinton's tireless fund-raising efforts on behalf of congressional members have also helped endear him to Democrats, who are well aware that he sees recapturing the House as an essential part of his legacy.
"That has been very helpful," said Democratic Caucus Chairman Martin Frost (Tex.). He said lawmakers meet new donors in their own states when they attend joint Senate-House fund-raisers where Clinton appears. "He's all over the country, and they've been very good events," Frost said.
Implicit in this new commitment, several lawmakers emphasized, is Clinton's gratitude to House Democrats for defending him during last year's impeachment proceedings. It remains an unspoken bond between them and the president.
"That was a very tough time for him and the first lady, and we were standing with him," Matsui said. "We didn't even stand next to [former House speaker] Jim Wright when he was going down, and we stood by the president."