Clinton Dilemma: Chart New Path Or Follow GOP?

Without decisive action, President's chance to articulate Democratic plans may be lost

AFTER a happily frenetic vacation socializing with thousands of old acquaintances, consulting privately with leading personal-development advisers, hunting ducks, and cruising Arkansas, President Clinton let the 104th Congress convene yesterday before returning to town.

For the first time, he faces a Congress even more hyperkinetic than he is.

As the new House and Senate opened for a long and loaded day of business yesterday, Mr. Clinton was in the rare position of presidential bystander. House Republicans have a high-speed, highly focused agenda they are running, and the president is not yet either coach or player.

So far, the White House is assuming something closer to the position of referee as members of the House of Representatives charge first into applying the laws they pass to themselves then into the 10 packages of major laws outlined in the Republican ``Contract With America.''

How Clinton handles this unaccustomed new role affects not only his potential reelection in 1996 but also the outcome of the fundamental shifts in government programs and priorities that conservative Republicans in Congress have pledged.

But ironically, while the stakes are extremely high for a president whose political capital is extremely low, his is not a difficult position. Now it is House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who describes himself as a quarterbacking player-coach, who has high expectations to meet.

One political scientist, Stephen Wayne of Georgetown University in Washington, says he does not recall ever seeing higher expectations of Congress and lower expectations of the president. Just as part of Clinton's predicament is that he promised an ambitious program of change that was only partly delivered, now it is an ambitious Congress that must deliver or face potential political freefall.

Clinton plans to do more than simply stay out of the way, but it is not yet clear how much more. At a bare minimum, the president has the power to veto any legislation that the Republican-controlled House and Senate produce. Presidents often use the threat of a veto to shape legislation. ``It is the administration's intention to draw the line against proposals that have extreme consequences,'' says a senior White House official.

For example, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala warned last week that Republican welfare proposals would cut off more than half of the children currently on public aid. The White House would oppose any outcome so Draconian, the official indicates.

But ideally, the official also indicates, the moderating influence of the Senate would take enough of the rough edges off bills produced by the House that Clinton could sign them.

Clinton has signaled over the past several weeks that he reads the last election returns the same way most Republicans do - as a call for a more conservative approach to government. So his apparent inclination is to support the change agenda led by House Republicans, at least as much as he conscientiously can.

On welfare, for example, which has emerged as a leading symbol to the public of ineffective government, Clinton has called for a welfare summit of governors and congressional leaders to find common ground. White House aide Bruce Reed says there is less disagreement on welfare than current rhetoric would indicate. The more scrutiny the issue receives, the more people will move away from radical proposals, he says, such as a return to orphanages.

On only one subject so far, the middle-class tax cut, has the president tried to seize the initiative back from Congress with a proposal of his own, presented in an Oval Office television address in early December. The president had not publicly promoted such a tax cut since his campaign, but the Republican Contract calls for a $500 tax credit per child, following Clinton's campaign proposal.

Some Democrats warn of dangers for Clinton on his current course. Americans traditionally like strong and effective presidents, whatever their ideology. Clinton will have to guard his presidential stature while ceding the political initiative to Mr. Gingrich.

Another danger is that in his role as a cooperative centrist trying to keep Republicans from going too far, he will not spell out any competing vision of government to build a campaign around in 1996.

Voters may ask themselves, says Mark Peterson, a University of Pittsburgh political scientist, ``Why reelect an ersatz Republican?''

But the coming weeks and months represent some opportunities to Clinton as well. For one thing, voters may get some of the bracing change they seem to want, and Clinton may indeed help to shape it into more practical and moderate forms than it might have taken. And if voters are happier, both Clinton and the Republican Congress are more likely to win reelection.

But the Republican Congress is going to be under more pressure to produce just as, in the next month or two, Republican candidates begin lining up for the 1996 presidential race. These candidacies will eventually work to highlight the fissures and factions in the GOP, as the candidates try to highlight their differences and critique their opponents.

And for two years, Clinton has been measured against successful historical presidents, Professor Wayne says. Now he will be measured against real-world leaders on Capitol Hill, where he is bound to fare better, he says.

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