Arm-Wrestling Congress, Clinton Shows Strength

Despite scandal, the president wins much of what he wanted in this week's budget tussle.

If Bill Clinton's presidency has been debilitated by 10 months of scandal, it didn't show this week.

At crunch time, when the president stood toe to toe with the Republican-controlled Congress over federal spending priorities, he came away with numerous victories. As a result, this year's budget is likely to reflect more of the White House agenda than some people in Washington had expected.

Chief among these successes are funding for the International Monetary Fund, which GOP leaders had steadfastly resisted, and a $1 billion downpayment on hiring 100,000 new teachers for America's elementary schools. Moreover, the president preserved much of the federal budget surplus for Social Security, as he had outlined back in January, denying Republicans the big tax cut they sought.

But how is it that the same lawmakers who last week voted to begin an impeachment inquiry about Mr. Clinton this week seemed unable to capitalize on whatever leverage they had gained?

It's certainly not warmer relations between the White House and Capitol Hill. Nor is it necessarily strong leadership from the Oval Office, say political analysts.

Rather, this president has become masterful at using tools the Constitution gives him - such as the veto - and at taking advantage of political circumstances, they say.

For one, Clinton knows lawmakers are eager to go home to campaign for fast-approaching elections. So the longer he keeps them in Washington, the greater leverage he has.

For another, he felt Republicans would want to avoid any budget impasse that could lead to another government shutdown - a possibility if Clinton vetoed spending bills that didn't meet his criteria.

"The Constitution endows even a weak president with enormous powers, and the primary power is the threat of a veto," says Marshall Wittmann, director of congressional relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation here. Clinton "is clearly aware of what his constitutional powers are."

A week of freedom

In a twist of irony, the scandal that's been troubling the president since January helped him now. Because lawmakers voted for the impeachment inquiry before negotiating the spending bills, Clinton enjoyed a week of Lewinsky-free headlines in which to do what he does best - use the bully pulpit to talk up his issues.

"By virtue of Congress having voted a motion of inquiry, it's taken the air out of the impeachment issue," says former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta. "It allowed the president more room to get his message out."

Moreover, say political analysts, Clinton was clever to make his education program his No. 1 message and budget priority - even though his plan to fund 100,000 new teachers, modernize schools, and introduce national academic-testing standards had been languishing in Congress for months. As public-opinion polls show, education is a top priority among Americans, and Clinton used the power of the press conference to hammer home his message.

Once it became clear what was happening with the president's other budget priorities, "a strategic decision was made" at the White House to focus on education and to narrow the demands to funds for more teachers and more bricks and mortar, says Ann Lewis, White House communications director.

The president also won $6 billion for struggling American farmers and hundreds of millions of additional dollars for environmental projects. But he had to make some sacrifices, too.

Although he secured funds for extra teachers, he had to give up on school modernization. In getting money for the IMF, Clinton agreed to Republicans' demands for reforming the institution. He forestalled an $80 billion tax cut, but Congress is still likely to approve a minor tax cut of less than $10 billion as it wraps up its work, possibly today. The smaller giveback is expected to come largely by extending tax breaks that are about to expire, such as an R&D tax credit for some businesses.

But this week's compromises can't mask an otherwise unproductive year for the president and lawmakers. Until now, Clinton had not been able to move his agenda anywhere in Congress, failing to win support for a patients' bill of rights, antismoking legislation, an increase in the minimum wage, and campaign-finance reform.

For his part, the president has vetoed several GOP priorities, including a ban on "partial-birth" abortions and various measures that would have given children greater access to private schools.

Political observers attribute the polarization partly to partisanship over the Monica Lewinsky matter and partly to election-year politics. With impeachment hearings ahead and Republicans likely to gain seats Nov. 3, the political landscape is not likely to smooth for the president (though Mr. Panetta says that if impeachment hearings go quickly, Clinton "has a chance to get his presidential feet back").

Business as usual?

As a result, analysts say, Americans can expect to see the president governing much as he has been doing: by veto, executive order, and artful use of rhetoric.

That, however, won't help Clinton save his presidential legacy, says the Heritage Foundation's Mr. Wittmann.

"He may have gotten 100,000 new teachers, but this is not a legacy. He can continue the rest of his term doing what we've seen so far, but it wouldn't be what any president would want" to be remembered for, he says.

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