Clinton scandal allows GOP to push foreign policy ideas With president distracted, Republicans block funds for IMF, North Korea deal

September 21, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sensing weakness at the scandal-scarred White House, congressional Republicans are moving to put their own stamp on some of the most important areas in U.S. foreign policy.

With the White House focusing on saving President Clinton from impeachment, GOP lawmakers are blocking or trying to change U.S. policy on a number of fronts, including the global financial crisis and North Korea, and have put a harshly critical spotlight on policy toward Russia and Iraq.

In the past week:

The House balked at granting the president's request for $18 billion to replenish the International Monetary Fund at a time when the world financial crisis deepens.

The House rebuffed administration pleas to approve funds for fuel oil for North Korea in accordance with a 1994 deal in which North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program.

Senate and House negotiators, cutting heavily into administration flexibility in managing trade with China, shifted control over satellite exports from the Commerce Department back to the State Department in a move aimed at tightening oversight over transfers of sensitive technology.

GOP-run committees put the administration on the defensive in hearings on Iraq and Russia, with House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin A. Gilman calling U.S policy toward Moscow "a dismal failure."

The congressional actions came as the administration appealed anew for bipartisan foreign policy support. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said the United States had reached "a critical moment in our effort to shape the post-Cold War world."

In a move that could further embarrass Clinton, Senate Republicans plan to move quickly on so-called fast-track legislation that gives trade negotiators broad authority to reach new trade agreements.

The issue pits the administration against pro-organized labor Democrats, such as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, whom the president will need in any impeachment fight.

Republicans deny trying to exploit the president's perceived vulnerability because of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But they haven't hesitated to highlight doubts about Clinton's ability to lead.

'Crisis of confidence'

"I think there's a crisis of confidence in the president right now, both domestically and internationally," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told CNN while Clinton was in Russia earlier this month.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke Friday of this being a pivotal moment in U.S. foreign policy. He then cast doubt on Clinton's ability to cope, by citing a public slip-up by Clinton last week over his nominee for United Nations ambassador, Richard C. Holbrooke.

Clinton blamed Congress for the delay in confirming Holbrooke, when in fact the nominee's financial dealings are being reviewed by the Justice Department.

"Now if the president can't be clear about the facts involving a person he is trying to appoint and he then tries to explain to us about Iraq or North Korea -- which is a more distant and difficult topic -- you have to wonder whether the president's getting thorough briefings at the White House at the present time," the speaker said.

The president's spokesmen have repeatedly said that he remains in command of foreign policy, and Clinton tried to reaffirm as much Wednesday at a joint press conference with Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel.

Tension over foreign policy is nothing new between the White House and Congress, where well-financed political, business and foreign lobbies wield substantial clout.

It's rare, however, for Congress to marshal powerful opposition to major administration initiatives.

Historic exceptions in this century include the Senate's refusal to join the League of Nations and the cutoff of Vietnam War funds.

"Usually when Congress threatens to jettison a president's policies in a delicate foreign-policy area, they blink," said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

None of the current disputes approaches the importance of the Vietnam War. But the array of challenges to the administration is unusual.

Since gaining control of both houses in 1994, Republicans have used their power of the purse to cut foreign aid and block payment of America's debt to the United Nations.

A bipartisan coalition in the House has also blocked increased financing for the IMF, limiting the money the fund can use to stabilize currencies around the world in the spreading financial crisis.

Albright despaired last week of getting Congress to even talk about increasing the foreign affairs operating budget that includes foreign aid. At about $20 billion, that budget equals less than 1 percent of total federal spending.

Recent troubles involving Iraq, North Korea and Russia have given Republicans an opening to sharpen criticism of the administration and advance their own agendas.

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