GOP Loses Face-Off With Clinton

But its misstep over disaster aid gets scant attention from public

Call it Shutdown Redux.

In a political skirmish reminiscent of the two government closures of 1995, congressional Republicans gambled - and lost - in their attempt to get President Clinton to sign a disaster-relief bill that contained unrelated provisions he strongly opposed.

While Americans hard hit by flooding in the Dakotas and Minnesota waited anxiously for federal grants to begin planning long-term reconstruction, Washington played politics. And the early verdict is that the Republicans are on the losing end of public opinion - just as they were during the 1995 shutdowns.

The latest CNN-USA Today poll shows 55 percent of Americans blame the Republicans and 25 percent blame Mr. Clinton for the aid holdup.

"My guess is it's just another demonstration where [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich can't control some of the very conservative members who have the blinders on," says California pollster Mervin Field.

"You'd think they'd have learned a lesson from two years ago, when they were so intransigent and shut down the government and just turned the mood of the public around."

Perhaps a saving factor for Republicans is that most Americans outside of the disaster-hit areas are likely not paying close attention to the battle over aid.

Mr. Field estimates that maybe 90 percent of Californians, a key electoral audience, are not really following the story.

Compared with the 1995 showdown over funding for the federal government, which affected Americans all across the country, the disaster-aid issue is of utmost importance in only a few regions.

Further, notes polling expert Karlyn Bowman, "the mood is really entirely different now."

"It's summer, the economy is doing fairly well, and that tends to make people think more about what's going on in their communities; they're less concerned about national life," says Ms. Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Here in Washington, congressional Republicans tried to use the multibillion-dollar disaster-relief bill as a vehicle to get the president to approve unrelated "riders." One would have banned the use of "sampling" in the 2000 census, a technique that Republicans believe would boost the count of minorities and therefore benefit Democrats in the redrawing of congressional districts. The other would have provided automatic funding for the federal government in a budget impasse to prevent future shutdowns.

Congress was expected to approve a bill yesterday that provided only disaster-relief funding. The GOP majority broke down when a group of 20 moderates wrote a letter on June 11 to Speaker Gingrich urging support for such a bill.

Political analyst Stu Rothenberg says the issue here is not the merits of the riders - which may be quite worthy - but how the Republicans chose to attempt their passage.

"You have to boil down an issue for the public," he says.

The Democratic position was simple: Just send them the aid. Republicans were, in the same breath, trying to explain census sampling and government-funding mechanisms.

"The Democrats had the better sound bite," says Mr. Rothenberg.

Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick argues that the GOP position wasn't wrong, just harder to communicate - and that the party didn't do so adequately.

The Republicans were playing to Clinton's strength - his ability to show compassion - and should have known that they were starting the game at "advantage Clinton," says Ms. Fitzpatrick.

"This was a good opportunity to strike back and share the spotlight with Clinton on an issue that's normally his, but we missed that opportunity," she says.

In Grand Forks, N.D., displaced residents of flooded communities have been getting angrier and angrier. The building season is short, and they want to get going as soon as possible. Local residents say they were insulted when Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) said last week if people needed trailers, his home state of Mississippi could send some up.

"If that's not cynical and partisan and self-interested, I'm not sure what is," says Robert Kweit, a political scientist at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

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