"What do Monica Lewinsky and Ken Starr have to do with scheduling business in the Senate?"
It may sound like the set up to a punch line by comedian Jay Leno. But it's the rhetorical response given by White House spokesman Mike McCurry this week to accusations that scandal charges dogging President Clinton are distracting the chief of state from conducting the nation's business.
As the president's personal secretary made her second grand jury appearance March 10, some argue that Mr. Starr's investigation into possible wrongdoing at the highest level deserves the attention it's being given.
But others say the political give and take may be masking a deeper problem: Neither the White House nor the Republican majority in Congress have managed to make much headway on their key initiatives this year.
"The Republican agenda is a do-nothing agenda which conservatives like. And President Clinton's ability to pursue his objectives has been dissipated," says James Thurber, a professor of political science at American University in Washington.
"What has there been [on the part of Republicans] since the Contract With America? The ideological bent of the Hill is to have government do as little as possible. Conservatives don't mind when government isn't expanding," Mr. Thurber says.
The White House insists the president is focused on a litany of priorities, including his visit yesterday to a preschool in Bridgeport, Conn., as part of his initiative to expand federal support for day care. Efforts to address long-term fixes with Medicare and Social Security, and to improve the performance of the Internal Revenue Service, are on track, it insists. "[The Lewinsky matter] hasn't distracted the president," states Mr. McCurry.
But Senate majority leader Trent Lott suggests Mr. Clinton's attention is diluted, and issues such as Social Security reform and America's policy toward Iraq are suffering as a result. "I think it is beginning to have an impact on the presidency, on the president, and on his ability to deal with many very important issues for the future of our country," Senator Lott says.
This week, McCurry countered by saying that Congress is more focused on coming midterm elections than legislation. "They haven't done much yet. I mean, they've renamed a lake, and they renamed an airport," he said.
Others outside the Beltway say that at minimum, the media coverage on the Starr investigation is crowding out domestic and foreign-policy issues from newspapers and magazines. What's lost, say some observers, is a full public examination and feedback on key issues, such as the US role in Bosnia, Iraq, and to how to best spend the historic budget surplus.
"Normally these issues would be the main story but they are not," says Norman Thomas, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.
Still, there is some progress, such as movement on a bipartisan tobacco bill in the Senate. And at a recent gathering of the nation's governors here, a consensus emerged for improved education programs while affirming welfare-reform targets.