Congress at sea while scandal unfolds Silence from White House unsettling to lawmakers

January 27, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- With a unifying political agenda and a popular president, Democrats in Congress looked with relish just two weeks ago toward the 1998 political season.

Today, as that season begins, the party faithful are keeping their president at arm's length and tip-toeing into Washington rather than taking the town by storm.

Democrats put on a brave face yesterday, publicly promising that the sex scandal swirling around President Clinton would not derail their carefully crafted agenda.

Rep. Barney Frank, an outspoken Democrat from Massachusetts, said a four-pronged legislative program focusing on health insurance reform, new child care programs, an expansion of Medicare and money for school construction would rise above the Monica Lewinsky morass.

But members of Congress from both parties understood that their best-laid political plans may well be ignored as long as Washington is consumed in scandal.

Clearly, many Democrats are concerned about Clinton's latest and most threatening sex scandal. Frank admitted he was asked to appear on the Sunday morning talk shows to address the scandal, but he refused. Until he knows more about the nature of the president's relationship with Lewinsky, a former White House intern, he is not about to step forward in the president's defense, Frank said.

Frank was not alone in his thirst for concrete information. The top aide of another prominent House Democrat said he called the White House last week to get an account of the Lewinsky matter, fearing that his boss would be grilled by the media or expected to come to the president's defense. He did not even receive a return phone call.

It is that vacuum of official information that is most troubling to members of Congress. And the White House has been careful not to draw Democratic allies into the fray, said Rep. James P. Moran Jr., a Northern Virginia Democrat.

On a White House visit Saturday night, Moran asked Clinton whether the president needed a show of support from Capitol Hill. Clinton assured Moran that he had not had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, but he also said that he would not expect anyone to stand up for him at the moment.

"I think I believe him," Moran said, shortly before ducking into a meeting with Vice President Al Gore. "I'm confident he'll be acquitted of [the] Paula Jones [sexual harassment lawsuit], and it's hard to believe he would be as unequivocal about Monica Lewinsky if there was any evidence of an affair."

If that sounds a little tentative, Democrats insisted they were feeling more upbeat yesterday than they had in days. President Clinton's strong and unequivocal denial of the affair in the morning coupled with a reassuring visit by Gore had bucked up party spirits.

"I believe him," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said of Clinton. "It is a very substantial distraction, although, extraordinarily, the president remains focused. I would be atop the flagpole, upside down."

Gore spoke with 33 moderate Democrats to lay out the policy initiatives Clinton would detail tonight in his State of the Union address. After years of fractious arguments with congressional Democrats, White House strategists have crafted a political agenda that would unite the often splintered party, Democrats agreed.

They plan to take on health maintenance organizations for what they have seen as onerous restrictions on medical care. They have embraced the president's call to expand Medicare eligibility to some Americans as young as 55. The plan to offer tax breaks and subsidies for child care has united liberals pushing for more government programs and conservatives seeking tax breaks. And adding funds for school construction seems to strike a chord throughout the Democratic Party.

But Gore also trekked down Pennsylvania Avenue to calm jittery Democratic nerves about Lewinsky. Just days ago, an aide to a House Democratic leader said staff members were talking ominously of the Democratic landslide that came after the downfall of Republican President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. Some staff members were even updating their resumes in anticipation of a crushing defeat in November.

That mood of doom has lifted somewhat, some aides and members said. Despair has turned more to bewilderment, said one prominent Democratic aide. The most pressing question for the Democrats is how to greet the president tonight.

Usually, the State of the Union is an orchestrated affair: The president's opposition greets him politely if unenthusiastically, while the president's party cheers riotously.

Members of Congress are supposed to show up early to the House chamber to get an aisle seat and press the flesh with the president. But as one Democratic aide put it, those seats may not be in high demand today.

Pub Date: 1/27/98

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