Clinton's last stand on the Hill

Though a lame duck, he'll push his agenda with Congress, which resumes work today.

As US lawmakers return from recess today to resume the nation's business, one question is: How much legacy can President Clinton squeeze out of Congress in the next four-week session?

The answer depends on how much Congress is willing to compromise.

That calculus, always complicated, is even more so this election year, when the House, Senate, and White House are all in play. Should Republican leaders resist Mr. Clinton's initiatives - and risk being tagged a "do nothing" Congress or, worse, face another government shutdown? Or should they negotiate in earnest with him, and hope to sell the compromise to the GOP base?

"The key is whether Republican leaders are savvy enough and strong enough to cut a deal with [Clinton] - and sell it," says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute here. "It will mean giving in to an awful lot of what he wants."

And the president, mindful of his legacy, is expected to ask for plenty. School construction, a higher minimum wage, new gun-safety measures, a patients' bill of rights, and a prescription-drug benefit in Medicare are issues he'd like to push through Congress - and if he wants them badly enough he may be willing to engage in a showdown with GOP congressional leaders.

"This budget showdown is Clinton's last chance for a legacy," says Mr. Ornstein. "He'd like to use it to get some substantive things done."

If past is prelude, Clinton could hold sway. Presidents tend to hold the edge in endgames, especially in a hotly contested election year. His fallback position, though, is to declare gridlock, blame Congress, and hope voters will hand Democrats a majority in the US House in November.

Congressional Republicans, for their part, are laying the groundwork for a compromise. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert last week said he'd support raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour over two years. In a radio address Saturday, Clinton called on Congress to send him a minimum-wage bill as its "first order of business."

"We want to avoid unpleasantness so members can get home [to campaign]," says Rep. David Dreier (R) of California, chairman of the House Rules Committee. "The legacy that President Clinton wants is to reverse what happened in 1994, when his party lost the House."

Of late, budget endgames have been perilous for Republicans. When President Bush backed off his "no new taxes" pledge in 1990, a deep rift opened in the party - and it contributed to the Republican loss of the White House. Then, during Clinton's first term, the collapse of the 1995 budget negotiations and the subsequent government shutdown contributed to GOP setbacks in the 1996 election.

This year, Republicans tried to rally some powerful bargaining points early in the process. Instead of pushing for a single big tax cut, they reframed their agenda as tax "fairness." Repeal of the marriage penalty and the estate tax passed Congress with bipartisan support. Now, Republican candidates are using Clinton vetoes of both bills in their fall campaigns.

While they gained a campaign issue via that strategy, GOP leaders are now far behind schedule in moving a budget through Congress by the end of this month, when a new fiscal year begins. Only two of 13 annual spending bills have been signed into law. If both chambers of Congress don't pass 13 appropriations bills by Oct. 1, lawmakers will lose both leverage with Clinton and standing with voters.

Last week, Senate majority leader Trent Lott fired the first shot in the end-of-session budget fight. He charged that Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were "engineering a train wreck" to affect the political climate.

"Only this crass political calculation can explain the complete abdication of presidential leadership - even involvement - in end-of-year budget decisions," he wrote in an Aug. 29 letter to colleagues.

His charge is based on White House refusal to meet with lawmakers to discuss possible budget compromises, explains John Czwartacki, a Lott spokesman. "Instead of working together in a bipartisan way, they want to wargame themselves into relevancy."

The White House countercharge? "Senator Lott needs to find some excuse for the fact that they're behind in their work once again on appropriations," said White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

The president meets today at the Rose Garden with congressional Democrats to lay out legislative goals for the last weeks of the 106th Congress. These include a patients' bill of rights, a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, and money to build or renovate schools and reduce class sizes.

Republicans, meanwhile, are scheduling votes that they believe will expose deep rifts in Democratic ranks. On Thursday, the House will vote to override Clinton's veto of a bill repealing the estate tax. The president charged that ending that tax is fiscally irresponsible.

Sixty-five House Democrats voted for that bill. The override vote will force those members to choose between their party's line and a tax cut that seems to be popular with voters.

In the Senate, GOP leaders hope to create some rumblings over the Democratic fault lines on China trade. Clinton supports the bill, but labor unions and the Democratic leadership in Congress have bitterly opposed it. Democrats had hoped to avoid this issue so close to elections, but Senate leaders promise an early vote.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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