WASHINGTON — AS the Democratic White House and Republican Congress brace for the next blizzard of legislative action, President Clinton and his office are persuing a strategy of conciliation.
The president's aim seems to be to find common ground and sign legislation when possible. Both sides know they have a mutual interest in showing that government can get things done.
For Mr. Clinton, a lesson from his predecessor was that racking up a pile of vetoes does not impress voters. The new Republican majority in Congress, for its part, knows that the public expects change -- and that voters could turn on them just as they turned on incumbent Democrats last November.
''It's obviously in the interest of congressional Republicans, House Republicans, to get their agenda passed and signed into law,'' says Dan Meyer, House Speaker Newt Gingrich's chief of staff. ''Presidential power is a key point of leverage ... [and] can't be ignored.''
But finding a way for Clinton and Congress to work together will be difficult. Clinton, an activist by nature, faces an army of activist Republicans in Congress. Areas of profound disagreement, such as gun control and tax cuts, loom large.
But the president clearly wants to sign welfare reform legislation. He challenged Congress in his Tuesday night press conference to put a bill on his desk by July 4 -- despite his assertions that the bill passed by the House is not tough enough on work requirements and is mean to children.
In a stunning acknowledgment of how much the Republicans have seized the agenda, Clinton felt it necessary to assert his relevance as president. ''The Constitution gives me relevance,'' he said. ''The power of our ideas gives me relevance; the record we have built up over the last two years, and the things we're trying to do give me relevance.''
Pat Griffin, Clinton's liaison to Congress, outlined a case-by-case strategy in dealing with issues in Congress: The president can veto legislation (though he has yet to exercise that option). He can try to mold legislation to his liking when it reaches the Senate, where the Republican majority is more moderate than in the House. And he can work with Senate Democrats to delay a bill through a filibuster, Mr. Griffin said, speaking at the American University this week.
''He is going to look for ways to help make things happen,'' Mr. Griffin says. ''How that actually reveals itself is going to be tough. He will use the veto when it makes sense. There is no simply formula.... Many have tried to say to the president to be a cookie cutter of Harry Truman [who vetoed dozens of bills]. He is more of a Woodrow Wilson or a [Franklin] Roosevelt character, trying to make things happen in these circumstances, albeit somewhat adverse right now, that face him.''
On a core of issues, the president has performed triage: Some he has stated he would happily sign -- and in some instances, already has signed, such as the one requiring Congress to follow the laws of the land. With others, such as welfare reform, he and Congress seem to be in the same ballpark, with room for give and take. Last comes the ''no way'' category, bills that he says he will oppose vigorously, such as a Republican plan to reverse a ban on assault weapons and remove a guarantee of 100,000 new policeon the streets.
The Republican plan for major tax cuts also falls in category three. ''He feels the $200 billion [cut is] too much and jeopardizes progress on deficit reduction,'' says Griffin, predicting that taxes ''will be the debate royale as we go through the rest of this session....'' Clinton's plan for $65 billion of tax cuts over five yearsis focused on families with children and tax breaks to pay for higher education.
View from the Senate
Viewed from the Senate, the dynamic of relations with Clinton is different but still difficult -- not least because four senators have declared for the presidency. When the budget season begins in earnest, the relationship between the Congress and the president ''is not going to be easy,'' says Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas.
''We are already so much into the presidential campaign season. Normally we just wouldn't be in this early.... I think it is just a given that'' the political struggle between the administration and the presidential candidates in the Senate, especially Sens. Bob Dole [of Kansas] and Phil Gramm [of Texas] ''is not going to be easy, and it is going to get worse simply because the political season has been moved up,'' says Senator Kassebaum, influential as chairwoman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, which will handle the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster as surgeon general.
''Obviously there are a lot of Republicans running and wanting to jump in early, seeing [the president] being very vulnerable. And I think with the speaker's ability to seize the agenda, it's left Clinton very much a player on the sideline.''
That, combined with the new list of presidential priorities, ''has moved not just the political dynamic, but also the presidential dynamic up so much earlier and I think that will influence the way legislation is brought. But I think President Clinton has had a hard time getting back into the middle of it to establish his persona as a leader. And it's gone back and forth to the point of not being very productive.''
Back in the House, Gingrich aide Dan Meyer throws out an olive branch to Clinton: ''There is a desire of House Republicans to see the president lead on some ... things'' such as, he says, efforts to balance the budget and on dealing with Medicare.