WASHINGTON -- Puffy-eyed beneath pancake makeup and still hoarse from a largely futile cross-country campaign blitz, President Clinton accepted part of the blame yesterday for the Democrats' worst midterm election debacle in nearly a half-century.
"I think I have some responsibility for it," Mr. Clinton, speaking at a White House news conference, said of the voters' sweeping ouster of his party from control of both houses of Congress.
"I'm the president. I'm the leader of the efforts that we have made in the last two years, and to whatever extent we didn't do what the people wanted us to do or they were not aware of what we had done, I must certainly bear my share of responsibility."
But Mr. Clinton insisted that the voters' fury was directed more at Washington's ways of doing business than at his own goals and policies.
He offered a hand of cooperation to the new Republican-dominated House and Senate, particularly on reforming welfare, on trimming his own health care package and devising a middle-class tax cut that doesn't raise the federal budget deficit. But he vowed that in an impasse, he would stick by his own convictions.
Mr. Clinton held the news conference to contribute his own "spin" to the voluminous commentary on Tuesday's results. The grim occasion marked the start of a major reassessment by his administration over how to direct its energies for the remaining two years of Mr. Clinton's term and position him for the 1996 presidential election.
Although the party that holds the White House usually loses congressional seats in midterm elections, not since 1946, when Harry S. Truman was president, have the Democrats lost both houses at once.
Mr. Clinton chastised his own administration and the government in general, and granted Republicans the right to bask in victory.
"I do think [the voters] still just don't like it when they watch what we do up here, and they haven't felt the positive impact of what has been done," the president said.
Previous presidents have dealt with a hostile Congress by pulling back on controversial domestic initiatives and looking overseas for accomplishments, and Mr. Clinton is expected to xTC adopt a more visible role in world affairs.
Tomorrow, he will travel to Indonesia for an economic summit of Pacific leaders. Next month, he will be host of a summit of Western Hemisphere leaders in Miami and may also toast U.S. troops in Haiti and join a conference on European security.
But Mr. Clinton indicated yesterday that while he would willingly repackage his domestic initiatives and compromise on some of his goals, he would not abandon them. Nor, he suggested, did the voters repudiate what he had already achieved.
"I do not believe they voted for reversals of economic policy or the positions on crime, I don't think they voted for a reversal of the Brady bill or the military assault weapons ban," he said.
Faced with a conservative Republican majority, particularly in the House, he asked the Republicans "to join me in the center of the public debate where the best ideas for the next generation of American progress must come," and suggested that most Americans were not strongly partisan.
He said, "I think perhaps we can go further" than in 1993 in cutting taxes for working families with children, but he offered no specifics.
He also said that he expects agreement with Congress on a welfare reform bill that would require people to work after a certain period but would cushion the change with education, training and child care.
Scaling back his health care proposal, Mr. Clinton acknowledged that the plan he proposed last year came to be seen as a big-government program that restricted choice.
Challenge to GOP
In a challenge to Republicans to put their rhetoric into practice, he urged Congress to grant him the line-item budget veto that Republicans demanded when they held the White House. He voiced little worry about incoming Republican committee chairmen probing more deeply into his Whitewater real-estate investment and relations with an Arkansas savings and loan institution while he was governor.
Newt Gingrich of Georgia, in line to be the next speaker of the House, has threatened to use the chamber's subpoena power to investigate the administration. Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York is likely to get jurisdiction over Whitewater as chairman of the Banking Committee.
In coming months, Mr. Clinton may find that foreign policy offers the most fertile ground for cooperation with Congress. His key goals -- boosting U.S. prosperity through expanded global trade, Middle East peace and bolstering reform in the former Soviet bloc -- have Republican support.
"He has a fascinating opportunity, coming off the Miami summit and [the Pacific summit], to show how trade and regional economic arrangements fit into a broader foreign policy," said Robert Zoellich, a top policy-maker in the Bush administration.
But the Democrats' shellacking Tuesday may weaken Mr. Clinton's influence worldwide and cause foreign leaders to view him as a lame duck.
And a Republican Congress can circumscribe the president in a number of ways.
A Senate Armed Services Committee under Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, for example, will likely limit U.S. participation in United Nations peacekeeping.
Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, could restrict whom the president may select for key jobs.
Although a shake-up of the foreign policy team is widely anticipated, starting with the replacement of Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, Mr. Clinton will face confirmation battles on a successor unless he makes a safe choice, such as retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, former Vice President Walter Mondale or retiring Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine.