Outsider Clinton knows how Washington works ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

November 17, 1992|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- President-elect Bill Clinton's assurances that he doesn't "want a continuation of the Cold War between the Congress and the White House" and that "Pennsylvania Avenue will run both ways again" are about what you would have expected him to say after his first post-election meeting with the Democratic congressional leadership.

All his campaign criticism of a Congress that had lost public confidence with its pay raises and internal banking troubles was put behind him now that he didn't have to worry that too close a kinship with the Democratic leaders might hinder his election chances.

All presidents-elect start out by pledging a spirit of cooperation with the legislative branch and probably mean it -- until the crunch comes on basic differences between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on a particular issue. And the meeting that gave birth to the glowing expressions of cooperation was with the Democratic leaders only. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, for one, has already served notice that he and the Republicans have no intention of rolling over the first time the new president smiles their way.

But in his Little Rock news conference with the Democratic leaders, Clinton demonstrated a sensitivity to a co-equal branch that belied his own campaign rhetoric as a Washington outsider who, once elected, would take the measure of the insiders.

After 12 years as a governor with close ties to the national leaders of his party, he is about as much an insider as anyone could be whose mailing address has been Little Rock, Ark.

While observing that "I will be in a hurry" once he is inaugurated, Clinton made clear that his celebrated plans for a productive first 100 days will mean a fast start on solving the problems facing him, especially in trying to right the economy, rather than their solution in that short period.

As reporters raised potential roadblocks in his way, particularly differences with his views already expressed by certain Democratic leaders, Clinton threaded his way through them. He indicated either a willingness to compromise or to study how most reasonably to implement his decisions.

He suggested, for example, that House Speaker Tom Foley might be onto something with his proposal that, rather than seeking a flat line-item veto on money bills as Clinton has said he favors, a procedure be agreed on to let the president veto a single item but give Congress power to override that action by a simple majority vote.

When confronted with the stated opposition of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman San Nunn to his plan to end the ban on homosexuals in the military, Clinton deftly observed that Nunn had raised the "most compelling" argument against it -- the privacy of others in the services -- and that it warranted consulting with military leaders. But he reiterated that he was not changing his mind on ending the ban itself, with no set timetable.

To the suggestion that he could not have Nunn as his secretary of defense, as has been rumored, when Nunn was publicly opposed to lifting the ban, Clinton turned the notion aside by saying he would never expect any appointee to agree with him on all issues. To do so, he said, "would eliminate a lot of gifted Americans" from public service.

And when asked what he thought his toughest obstacles would be upon taking office, Clinton without hesitation replied: "The problems themselves." He didn't expect that members of Congress, Democratic or Republican, would buck the voters' stated desire for change and the end of gridlock. "I think the problems are likely to give us more difficulty than the personalities," he said.

The tenor of the news conference with the Democratic leaders, as that of his first post-election meeting with reporters a few days earlier, was one of cautious optimism -- and respect for those he will need to convert that optimism into programs.

Bill Clinton is not likely to take office with a chip on his shoulder the way the last Democratic "outsider," Jimmy Carter, did in 1977, greeting Congress with slashes in their favorite pork-barrel water projects. He no doubt will have his own fights, but they won't be because he doesn't grasp what it takes to get things done on the inside in Washington.

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