Scandal stalls legislative process Distracted lawmakers show little interest in routine business

September 19, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- There is a hidden cost, lawmakers and lobbyists say, to the sex scandal besetting President Clinton: It enables both parties to duck all but the most pressing or the most politically profitable legislation.

Many initiatives large and small -- even some backed by Congress' Republican leaders -- are being set aside or slowed down while all eyes turn to the House Judiciary Committee as it decides whether to conduct impeachment hearings.

"Clearly, the Clinton scandals have just sucked the oxygen out of this place," says Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, a Republican. "It's the topic of every conversation."

Staffers in every congressional office tell of handling wave upon wave of constituent telephone calls and e-mails -- in some cases, hundreds a day -- as the president battles disclosures stemming from his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"It's obviously captured the attention of all of us," says Bruce Gates, a lobbyist who works on tobacco and trade issues.

In the meantime, much of the routine business of government -- all of it important to somebody -- is getting pushed aside.

For example, House leaders recently canceled a vote on legislation to allow more skilled foreign workers to come into the country on six-year visas, a program desperately sought by high-technology firms.

And the House Judiciary Committee froze its deliberations on another popular measure that would prevent doctors from prescribing potentially lethal doses of drugs to patients who intend to commit suicide.

"It's been pulled because we've all been in committee" arguing over the release of Clinton's videotaped testimony, says Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who sits on the judiciary panel. "We can't be in two places at one time."

In addition, the Senate has not yet scheduled a vote on major banking legislation, already approved by the House, to rewrite the rules under which financial firms do business -- even though the bill received overwhelming bipartisan support from the Senate committee that drafted it.

"As a legislator, it's frustrating," said Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican. "Every piece of legislation is being colored or

shaped by these more dominant issues."

Smith and other Republicans say House and Senate leaders are focusing on passage of the 13 enormous appropriations bills, which dictate how much can be spent on each program in the federal budget. Although the new federal fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, it now appears that Congress will fail to approve at least four or five of those bills by mid-October, when lawmakers head home for the final stretch of their re-election bids.

In that case, the lawmakers will have to adopt a huge emergency stopgap spending bill to keep some federal agencies from shutting down.

It is the recess deadline, some lawmakers say, that is dragging down the prospects of all but the most critical legislation. But many Democrats, who have assailed Republicans for months for running a "do-nothing Congress," now say GOP leaders are getting away with inaction because of Clinton's woes.

"We're simply spinning our wheels," says Sen. Dale Bumpers, an Arkansas Democrat. "They're not doing anything."

Some House Republican aides privately wonder what happened two bills promised by Republican leaders earlier this year. House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked Ohio Rep. Deborah Pryce, a Republican, to come up with a bill to thwart smoking by `D teen-agers as a counterpoint to the at least $565 billion tobacco settlement killed by the Senate.

"She has not had any discussions with any of the leaders about what's going to happen with tobacco," Candice Perodeau, a Pryce spokeswoman, says of her boss. "She did feel strongly that it was an important issue to address. They aren't even finished with a bill."

Senate Republicans also pledged a bill to address widespread public frustration about health maintenance organizations, one that offered more relief than was given in a House bill passed earlier this year.

But that bill hasn't been drafted yet, either.

Democrats say Republicans have been unable to produce those bills because they can't agree among themselves but are hiding behind the sense of crisis surrounding congressional inquiry into the Clinton scandals.

"Their caucus is so deeply divided that they cannot address substance effectively," says Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. "Therefore, they are using the present situation to distract the American public and the press from the real issues."

Meanwhile, Republicans paint Democrats' repeated efforts to add HMO and minimum wage measures to appropriation bills as a desperate effort to distract public attention from Clinton's troubles.

"I don't think there's any doubt about it," says Sen. Don Nickles, the Republicans' assistant majority leader. "I think they're trying to change the subject, and trying to say they're pursuing their agenda. And they're making it difficult to pass the bills."

Added Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican:

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