Clinton breaks rules to achieve his goals

March 01, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

CHICAGO -- During President Clinton's thinly veiled political BTC ride to the rescue of his powerful House ally, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, the topic at a round-table discussion was crime and gun control.

"I applaud you," Rostenkowski told the president, "because you're not afraid to take on the tough ones. And this is a tough one."

Guffaws escaped from the press corps. It was all too obvious that the presidential discussion on crime, and later a speech that also focused on health care and education, constituted a cover for Clinton to come into Chicago to help bail out Rostenkowski in his tough March 15 primary fight against four pesky opponents.

And coming here was a tough one in one sense, because Rostenkowski is under investigation by Clinton's own Justice Department for allegations of misusing federal funds for personal gain. Not only that, but presidents are not supposed to interfere in contested primaries.

But Dan Rostenkowski is not just another Democrat. As Clinton rather surprisingly pointed out very forcefully at Wright Junior College here, as chairman he was critical in the passage in the House by a single vote last year of Clinton's deficit-reduction package. The president made no bones, either, about how important he considered Rostenkowski's committee leadership in approaching legislative fights over health-care and welfare reform.

Recalling the one-vote victory fr his deficit-reduction package last year, Clinton said "if it hadn't been for the leadership of the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, it would not have happened, and this economy today would not be on the right path it's on if we had not done it. That is a fact."

Then, alluding to the charges against Rostenkowski, Clinton added: "It is not up to me to know or to make judgments about all the things that are of concern to the people of Chicago, the people of this neighborhood. But I can tell you, as your president, I know that for a fact. I also know that we have a lot of challenges before us." And in solving them, he suggested, he needs the Rostenkowski clout on the Hill.

"What this is about is getting people together and getting things done," Clinton said.

The danger that Clinton will lose Rostenkowski as a critical ally is real enough. Polls show the charges against him have taken a serious toll on his popularity, and if he survives it may be only because two well-known and two obscure opponents may split enough anti-Rosty votes to let him slip through for a 19th two-year term. Even then, an indictment could strip him of his committee chairmanship.

Clinton ignored direct press questions about whether he was "endorsing" Rostenkowski in the primary, and he took care to talk of his leadership last year and this year -- not next, after his present term is over. But there was no mistaking his intent to throw a lifeline to a politician whose widely acknowledged legislative skills and toughness are an asset in pressing Clinton's ambitious agenda on Capitol Hill.

It is a message that will resonate far beyond Chicago among Democrats in Congress, and Democrats in gubernatorial and other races around the country.

Last year, when Democratic Sen. Donald Riegle of Michigan was still expected to seek re-election, he not only opposed the president on the North American Free Trade Agreement but attended an anti-NAFTA rally in his home state with Ross Perot. At the time, Clinton was scheduled to attend a campaign fund-raiser for Riegle and the White House said he would go anyway. Riegle later took Clinton off the hook by announcing he would not seek re-election after all.

The point, though, was that Riegle was expected to be a strong supporter of the president's health-care reform proposals and Clinton wanted that vote. So he was willing to suffer the barbs that surely would have been tossed at him for helping the "ungrateful" anti-NAFTA Riegle.

Clinton's willingness to take the political heat for coming here in behalf of Rostenkowski indicates the depth of his commitment to his legislative goals, and never mind how it looks to the political purists.

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