War takes the steam out of domestic agenda

Clinton's focus on Kosovo pushes big issues like Social Security reform

Christopher Edley is trying to be patient. After all, there's a war on.

But he has lost hope that the President Clinton's report on race relations, which Mr. Edley is authoring, will be ready this month, as planned.

Even during the impeachment crisis, says this former Clinton adviser, the president found time to personally edit and rewrite parts of the report, a pet project near to the president's multicultural heart. But understandably, says Edley, "The war has closed things down quite a bit."

As absorbing as the impeachment crisis was, the Kosovo conflict takes a far greater share of the president's time and attention. With the stakes so high, it could very well become the defining issue of his presidency, eclipsing a domestic agenda already endangered by partisan politics.

And it's not just the commander in chief who's focused on war. Congress is as well, which makes major breakthroughs on big-ticket reforms in Social Security, and Medicare even less likely, says Marshall Wittmann, congressional analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation here.

The domestic agenda is essentially suspended," says Mr. Wittmann. "Washington is so unipolar, as we saw during impeachment. Only one major entree can be on the plate at a time. So consequently, everything else becomes secondary."

But Kosovo is exponentially more time consuming for the president than the impeachment crisis was. To a great extent, that threat was personal, and one he could mostly delegate to his lawyers and a few key political advisers. With Kosovo, there is far more hanging in the balance - the stability of a region, a military alliance, and most important, thousands of human lives. It's not a matter to be left to a crisis-management team.

Not surprisingly, then, the president has pushed other things aside to concentrate on the Balkans. At times, he has devoted entire days to the conflict.

Generally, the president talks to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger several times a day, either on the phone or in person. He sits down to lengthy meetings with his foreign-policy team several times a week. And he's on the phone to other NATO leaders and key players, such as Russian President Boris Yeltsin, with whom he talked for 45 minutes Monday. This week is almost entirely taken up with Kosovo and the NATO summit, which has morphed into a high-level workshop on the Balkans crisis.

Ann Lewis, White House communications director, says she has had to "recalibrate" the number of domestic events on the presidential calendar. Instead of the usual four announcements per week, Mr. Clinton is down to one, such as his recent proposal to bring a measure of reform to the Social Security system with government-assisted retirement savings accounts for taxpayers.

That proposal, known as USA savings accounts, got the amount of media coverage the White House felt it deserved, but "we've done some other events that just might as well not have happened. It literally was the tree falling in the forest that nobody was around to hear," says Ms. Lewis, who hopes to return to a fuller presidential calendar next week. Still, she says, "flexibility" is the watchword as far as the president's schedule is concerned.

Yet Lewis and others at the White House insist that day-to-day work on Clinton's domestic agenda is continuing.- as the president puts in more hours to compensate for the time he spends on Kosovo. The flow of domestic memos to and from the Oval Office is unabated and advisers' access to him undiminished, they say.

"We're trying to keep the fires burning," says a senior adviser to the president, adding that "this is not normally the most productive period in Congress anyway."

The White House is getting ready to send lawmakers education and crime bills, and is set to unveil its plans for Medicare reform within several weeks. Congress, meanwhile, is continuing with the budget process.

Some political analysts say the president's key domestic plans were already in trouble because of partisan politics and positioning for the 2000 elections - not to mention the distrust of Clinton among Republican lawmakers that is part of the fallout of the impeachment process. These things - and not just Kosovo - are the real reasons that only routine work will get done, they say.

"This Congress was already shaping up as a time to frame issues for debate in 2000 rather than reach broad bipartisan agreements. I think the Kosovo war probably reinforces that likelihood," says Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution here.

Mr. Mann and others argue that the president is rightly spending a lot of time and energy on Kosovo, and should in fact be spending even more time on it - especially in the absence of any clear endgame. They point out that the war, not the domestic agenda, is the nation's and Washington's priority right now.

"This is the greatest challenge to [Clinton's] presidency and our country right now, and it's entirely appropriate it dominate the lion's share of his attention and energy," says Mann.

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