Lott says presidency's power is 'lost' in Clinton sex scandal Senate leader signals plan to force president to accept GOP measures

September 01, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott asserted yesterday that the power and "moral dimension" of the American presidency have been "lost in scandal and deception."

In his first extended comments on the White House sex scandal, Lott stopped short of calling for President Clinton's resignation. But in harshly worded remarks, Lott signaled that he would seek to exploit Clinton's weakened position by forcing him to accept Republican measures the president ardently opposes, from increasing defense spending and deploying a missile defense system to cutting taxes and providing taxpayer support for private education.

"As a father, I am offended by the president's behavior and by the tragic example he has set for the young people of the country," Lott said, setting a confrontational tone for the final six weeks of the 105th Congress. "As a citizen, I am disappointed in the way the highest office in the nation has been reduced in stature and diminished in credibility."

The White House had no comment on Lott's personal criticism of the president.

The Senate returned to work this week after a monthlong recess, with a full plate of priorities but a sex scandal sapping lawmakers' ability to achieve much.

Both parties are divided on how to proceed. Most Republicans, including Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, are counseling members to withhold judgment on the president's fate, to dismiss the chances of rapid action on impeachment, and to return to their districts as soon as possible to campaign for re-election.

But House Republican Whip Tom DeLay cast a pall over that scenario this weekend when he said Congress should remain in Washington this fall to begin impeachment proceedings if independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr completes his investigation report this month, as is widely expected. Far from reserving judgment, DeLay has called on Clinton to resign.

The Democrats may also be split in several ways, possibly including along racial lines, suggested a Democratic aide to the House Judiciary Committee, which would conduct any impeachment inquiry.

The committee's top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr., has remained supportive of the president and critical of Starr. Conyers is black. The committee's other two leading Democrats, Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Howard Berman of California, have been much more circumspect in their opinions. Frank and Berman are white.

That divide reflects the nation as a whole. A New York Times/CBS News poll of 788 whites and 92 blacks found that 94 percent of African-Americans approve of the way the president is performing in office and that 82 percent had a favorable opinion of Clinton personally. By contrast, the president's job approval rating stood at 60 percent among whites. Just 42 percent of whites thought favorably of Clinton personally.

The Senate tried yesterday to get back to business. Lott and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, said that at the very least, Congress would pass the 13 spending bills needed to keep the federal government running after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

But both sides have cast doubt on even that prospect. Even before Clinton casts a veto, Lott is already seeking to ensure that voters blame the White House -- not the Republicans -- for any shutdown of the government.

He raised the likelihood that Clinton would veto spending bills and use a government shutdown to divert attention away from the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Barry Toiv, a White House spokesman, said: "It's laughable for Senator Lott to suggest that the president or anybody else is to blame if Congress doesn't complete its work in time. For eight months, this Republican Congress has been unable to produce a budget or even a single appropriations bill."

At the same time, Lott took a hard line on issues that could provoke vetoes, pushing the president to increase defense spending, possibly by using the budget surplus, to deploy a national missile defense system, to take a harder line with Iraq, to fund vouchers for private school tuition, to accept an independent counsel to investigate campaign fund-raising abuses in the 1996 presidential campaign, and even to intervene to halt the Northwest Airlines pilot strike.

Lott seemed to use the threat of impeachment to soften the president's resistance. In March, the Mississippi Republican had raised the prospect that Congress might censure the president as a halfway measure between impeachment and exoneration. Yesterday, he took that off the table.

The Democrats have their own agenda for the coming weeks, including passage of managed care legislation, a sweeping campaign finance overhaul and a raise in the minimum wage, and Daschle pledged to use every parliamentary tactic to pass at least the managed care and campaign finance bills.

The prospects of parliamentary guerrilla warfare have buoyed Democrats a bit by giving them something to talk about other than Lewinsky. But chances of passing any of the president's or Democrats' priorities are considered extremely slim.

Pub Date: 9/01/98

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