Capital's Other, Undone, Work

If the president's authority is weakened by Starr report, will he become more submissive or more assertive with Congress?

On Capitol Hill, the Kenneth Starr report has cast a thick pall over Congress as it grapples with the recommendation that President Clinton face impeachment proceedings.

But the nation's business beckons. Less than a month remains before Congress's planned adjournment on Oct. 9, and only one of the 13 spending bills that fund government operations has passed both houses of Congress.

And even if Mr. Clinton is imperiled politically, his credibility in ruins, he remains president. His signature is still required on those bills, and he and the Republican-controlled Congress must come to agreement over a range of sticking points. He still holds one of the mightiest instruments of presidential power, the veto pen.

The ultimate endgame, a government shutdown, looms as a possibility for both parties, though it would be a highly risky gambit that could result in either party being blamed. Leaders of both parties have ruled it out.

All of which leads to a key question: Will the weakened president be more inclined to compromise with Republicans, as Democrats fear? Or will he try to play hardball, to show that he's still a player?

All the while, as he calculates legislative strategy with members of both parties, he also faces the fact that he is dealing with the very people who will sit in judgment of him - and could potentially end his presidency - during an impeachment process.

In the budget battle, "his position is weakened, and therefore he will not be able to fight for programs that he wanted full funding for," says James Thurber, an expert on presidential-congressional relations at American University here.

Some areas where he may not get the funding he wants include education, the national-service program, and enforcement of environmental regulations, says Professor Thurber.

Democrats maintain that, legislatively, little will happen differently because of the president's sex scandal. Clinton and the Democrats still hold the upper hand in public opinion on issues such as education, health care, and the environment. And Republicans may decide that, because they stand a good chance of picking up seats in the November elections - bolstering their slim congressional majority - they may be better off waiting until the next Congress to push their agenda.

"I don't think Democrats will suddenly change their own policy views or start opposing the president," says Ed Kilgore, policy director of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council.

But from now until the end of this Congress, Clinton will not be able to escape speculation over the reasons behind each policy shift and compromise - even with members of his own party, whose support in the coming months is vital.

For instance, last week the administration changed course and backed a proposal for farm supports after opposing a similar measure in July. The measure happens to be favored by Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, whose support Clinton needs. There are other possible reasons for an administration change of heart - such as the continued decline of the farm economy - but Clinton's political needs can never be removed from the calculation.

The main focus, though, will be on how the administration handles Republicans. One looming battle centers on taxes. The Republicans have reached general agreement on a plan to cut taxes over five years by between $70 billion and $80 billion and pay for it with the projected budget surplus. Clinton and the Democrats adamantly oppose using the surplus to pay for tax cuts. (They, however, are willing to tap the surplus for emergency spending items that need to be handled soon, such as the American mission in Bosnia and added security for embassies.)

In some ways, a little confrontation with Republicans could work to Clinton's benefit, by reminding Democrats that he's the one who can protect their interests.

"This is a role he played to perfection in '95 and '96 - guarding the gate against Newt the Hun," says Norman Ornstein, a political scholar at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, referring to Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"For the Democratic base, which is growing increasingly angry and antsy inside Congress, a few vetoes remind them of that."

By putting Republicans on the defensive, Clinton can also try to revive the Democrats' charge that this is a "do-nothing Congress."

As for Clinton's agenda, as outlined in last January's State of the Union address, it has widely been viewed as dead in the water since the moment he announced it, say observers from both parties. The plan to boost federal spending on child care, the plan to fund bond initiatives for school modernization, the plan to put 100,000 new teachers in classrooms - these are things the president would like to do but that the country doesn't have to decide on in this congressional session.

His challenge with the Republicans is to get done what has to be done, just to keep the government running, and to fund the most urgent emergency measures.

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