A Season of Stalemate on Hill

Bipartisanship that once marked White House-congressional relations has dissolved into rancor.

A year ago, President Clinton and congressional Republicans were basking in a warm glow of bipartisanship following their historic deal to balance the United States budget for the first time in three decades.

Today, the thrill has gone out of the relationship. The forecast for the summer: a chilly dose of partisan politics.

Most of the president's initiatives, if not dead, are at least in hibernation. Congress has brushed aside his education and day-care proposals, for instance. Nor are lawmakers likely to give him anything resembling the tobacco legislation he wants.

The GOP-led Congress, for its part, looks set to be thwarted this summer by the president's veto pen. Mr. Clinton has threatened to kill an education-account tax benefit supported by some moderate Democrats. He promises more of the same if Congress sends him its financial-services reform bill in its current form.

As the 105th Congress enters the home stretch, observers ask: Are its main achievements behind it, or will more accomplishments emerge from the stalemate?

Even among members, no one is sure. "In the last Congress, nothing moved for the first 18 months, and in the last six months everything moved," says Rep. Thomas Davis (R) of Virginia. "I think you'll see the same thing this time. The question is what will move."

But Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut is more pessimistic.

"This session may well end without another significant accomplishment," he says. "The most that we'll do is adopt the 13 appropriations bills, and even that is in doubt."

The change in atmosphere has several causes:

Be careful what you wish for. The booming economy quickly overtook last year's budget deal, which would not have balanced the books until 2002. Instead, this fiscal year may see a surplus as high as $100 billion. Republicans and Democrats can't agree among themselves or with each other on what to do with it. "We haven't quite figured out the politics of surplus," Senator Lieberman says.

The Monica factor. The continuing scent of scandal dogging the Clinton administration has deeply soured White House-congressional relations. Hill Democrats pound independent counsel Kenneth Starr for his investigation of whether the president had an affair with an intern and then asked her to lie under oath. The president's allies fight Republicans tooth and nail in congressional committee investigations of whether Clinton and the Democrats knowingly solicited illegal foreign campaign contributions in 1996.

Meanwhile, conservative Republicans blast the president's ethics at every turn. Speaker Newt Gingrich broke months of studied silence to recall that no one is above the law, not even the president, and speculation about possible impeachment proceedings has run rife.

Election-year politics and second-term theory. Some say a president has more problems with Congress when he isn't running for reelection. But Senator Lieberman discounts this: "It has more to do with the political back and forth."

Some members of both parties insist that confrontation, not cooperation, will energize their voters next fall, when the GOP must defend its slim 11-seat House majority. Democratic leaders are already testing their attack strategy. "This is a Congress that is failing ... for working families and for children in this country," charges House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri. "They are only doing the bidding of the special interests and the wealthiest of the wealthy."

To be sure, Congress has some major achievements this year, too: the massive highway and transit law, approval of NATO expansion, and a bill to reform the Internal Revenue Service, which will soon reach the president.

But some significant bills crashed and burned. A comprehensive tobacco bill perished after four weeks of Senate debate. And conservative Republicans managed to stymie campaign-finance reform in the upper chamber. Both issues are still alive in the House, where passage could reignite Senate debate.

TIME could be the biggest problem: Congress has only 40 legislative days left this year. The schedule is also under pressure from Democrats, who have slowed Senate action in an effort to advance their agenda. They now threaten to slow it further if GOP leaders don't allow a debate on raising the minimum wage.

Among the many issues still up for consideration, the likeliest to reach Clinton's desk may be a so-called patient's bill of rights. Sensing the public's growing irritation with the practices of some health-maintenance organizations, Republicans last week introduced a bill to strengthen consumers' hands when dealing with managed-care groups. Democrats immediately attacked the proposal as insufficient, while insurance groups said it goes too far.

But political calculations could change the script: "If this [election] begins to look more and more like a contest, the two parties will have to decide whether they do better by staking out positions or by getting things done," Lieberman says.

So far Republicans aren't worried. "I don't think anyone's afraid of calling this a do-nothing Congress when you've balanced the budget for the first time since 1969," says Representative Davis, who is running for his third term in November - unopposed.

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