Clinton, Congress Stall One Another's Agenda

Money for school construction, funding to ease the Asian financial crisis, campaign-finance reform - these are White House issues going nowhere in Congress.

But the stalemate cuts two ways. Big items on the GOP agenda - broad tax cuts, education savings accounts, abortion restrictions - are blocked by President Clinton and Capitol Hill Democrats.

Additionally, a multibillion-dollar tobacco deal is in limbo, not just because the industry has pulled out of negotiations, but also because the president is not showing leadership on the issue, complain GOP lawmakers.

Behind the inaction are soured relations between the White House and the Republican-led Congress, which have been sliding downhill since January. Frustration is evident, as the president's agenda stalls and Democrats slap Congress with the "do nothing" label. Each side, of course, points to the other as the culprit.

It wasn't this way last year. Then, Mr. Clinton and congressional leaders agreed on a historic budget outline eliminating the federal deficit. Before that, they put their heads together on another big one - welfare reform.

BUT times are different. Congress "is more partisan than last year ... and getting worse," says a White House official. This is a congressional election year with Republicans not eager to hand the president any victories - and vice versa.

Rep. Chris Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, has a different complaint. The president's legal distractions mean less "meaningful dialogue" with Congress, he says.

The "debate" about Clinton's woes "has taken us off message and it is derailing. It has taken away the dialogue that brought us both into the center," Representative Shays said at a recent Monitor breakfast.

Political analysts see truth in both explanations, and they offer several other reasons for the poor communication this year: a lame-duck presidency; a Republican leadership having to kowtow to the far right; a Democratic leadership that's out of step with the president; a healthy economy leaving few burning issues to resolve; and a federal budget surplus, perhaps as much as $50 billion for this fiscal year.

"This year it's [Monica] Lewinsky, elections, and surpluses," says James Thurber, presidential scholar at American University here. "With a surplus, there's no need for constant communication to get a budget passed on time."

It's uncertain whether things will improve any time soon. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation still dogs Clinton, and some Republican leaders are happy to blast away at his morals - a strategy discouraged by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia and Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi.

Last week, for instance, House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas branded the president as "shameless." His Texas colleague, Rep. Tom DeLay (R), the House majority whip, used similar wording at a breakfast with reporters in late March. In a lengthy attack, he reproved the president for having "no shame, no integrity, no dignity." Representative DeLay's attitude toward the president is so destructive that he should not be invited to meetings with the White House, suggests Shays.

While the effect of Mr. Starr's investigation is uncertain, several analysts here predict that one outcome could be a Congress that springs into action at the last minute. Lawmakers, needing to campaign on accomplishments in this session, will get busy and pull off some deals with the White House shortly before the election, they surmise.

The obvious one is tobacco. Congress and the White House are determined to move ahead with tough legislation to discourage teen smoking - with or without the cooperation of the tobacco industry. "Tobacco is win-win'' for lawmakers and the president, says Mr. Thurber.

In the meantime, expect mostly talk on issues like Social Security reform and little headway on patients' rights, child care, or national education-testing standards - subjects too loaded with ideology to risk any votes right now.

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