Scandal makes it harder to pass divisive proposals One casualty may be tobacco settlement

January 29, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In September, when the Senate Finance Committee heard explosive tales of abuse and bullying by federal tax collectors, the atmosphere on Capitol Hill was electric. The nation was captivated. Yesterday, the same panel met to grill Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin on how he planned to reform the Internal Revenue Service. This time, no one was listening.

As Congress returned to action yesterday after a two-month recess, lawmakers found ample evidence that the nation's attention was fixated on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The expansive agendas of both parties may well be on hold until allegations of sex, lies and audiotapes at the White House are resolved.

"This is the political equivalent of a black hole," Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, said of the scandal swirling around President Clinton. "It's sucking all the energy into it."

For the president and his allies, there are advantages. The last thing they need is more headlines on campaign fund-raising abuses that focus on the Clinton administration, said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat.

The day after the president's State of the Union address was supposed to be an occasion for Clinton's policy proposals to gain some traction. Instead, Democrats found themselves essentially spinning their wheels.

At House hearings yesterday into allegations that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt squashed a proposed Indian casino in Wisconsin at the behest of wealthy Democratic campaign donors, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, spoke forcefully in Babbitt's defense. But only a scattered crowd and a few members of Congress bothered to show up.

Waxman charged that $8.8 million in campaign contributions from the tobacco industry since 1995 had persuaded Republican leaders last year to quietly give cigarette makers a $50 billion tax break.

But like a tree falling in the woods, the allegation fell harmlessly onto the empty chairs where camera crews from the TV networks were supposed to be sitting.

Members of a new coalition of moderate Democrats reserved a television studio in the Capitol to tout the president's new proposals on education, Social Security and child care. But only a few reporters and no TV cameras were there to capture the moment.

The vacuum left by the Monica Lewinsky matter has given Republicans a golden opportunity, said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican.

"His program has not resonated with the American public," Gramm insisted. "Unless he can plug it over and over and over again, it's going to die, and this [scandal] is obviously hindering his ability to do that."

That should leave the field wide open to Republicans, Gramm said. Already, the Texas conservative has promised that Republicans will pass legislation to radically restructure the Internal Revenue Service and to include new provisions -- such a strengthening an independent IRS oversight board -- that Clinton will not like.

Yet Gramm told the Senate Finance Committee that he was sure the president would sign the legislation. A weakened president, Gramm said, is not likely to stand up for the tax collector.

Before the Lewinsky matter burst into the open, Democrats had hoped to push legislation to narrow the scope of investigations launched by federal independent prosecutors. Many Democrats said that Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel, had already gone too far afield in his investigation of Whitewater.

Even now, members of both parties say, something must be done to rein in the power of independent prosecutors.

"It's not just this [Lewinsky] thing," Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said yesterday. "It's a long series [of overreaching by independent counsels] going back to Republican administrations."

But any changes to the independent counsel law are likely to be politically off-limits, so long as Starr is investigating allegations the president had sexual relations with a White House intern and advised her to lie about it.

"There might be a time to engage in that discussion, but not right now," said Sen. Connie Mack, a Florida Republican.

Democrats, meanwhile, are pressing on with their priorities, despite the daunting odds against them.

Enacting divisive and highly complex proposals, such as the settlement with the tobacco industry, could be difficult without the leadership of a powerful and popular president, said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who is a leading proponent of the tobacco deal.

More mundane items on Clinton's agenda, such as funds for school construction or hiring new teachers, Biden said, are the kinds of proposals that get slipped into budget bills in back rooms anyway. Besides, he noted, the atmosphere could change in an instant.

Given those circumstances, members of Congress had little choice but to try to ignore the scandal.

"Certainly there's been a dark cloud over the nation these last few days, but last night, the sun popped through," Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat, said of the well-received State of the Union address.

As he spoke, storm clouds poured rain outside the Capitol.

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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