Republicans find success elusive on Capitol Hill Congressional GOP is upstaged by Starr, battered by Clinton

October 17, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As Republican leaders gathered early last month to celebrate the year's congressional achievements, two vans unexpectedly drove up to the Capitol steps to unload Kenneth W. Starr's searing impeachment report.

The symbolism was perfect. The independent counsel had been upstaging the Republicans for months as they sought to shrug off the Democrats' "do-nothing" label for Congress. Yet Starr did prompt Republicans to undertake one momentous endeavor: the third presidential impeachment inquiry in history.

Now, with just over two weeks left before the elections, %o members must campaign on a short list of legislative achievements and an impeachment proceeding that has left voters decidedly skeptical. Lawmakers left town yesterday to campaign over the weekend, vowing to return Tuesday to approve a $500 billion spending deal that completes the government's $1.7 trillion budget for fiscal 1999.

"It's rare I've felt they needed to get home as much as they need to do now," said Stephen Hess, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "This was always a Congress that didn't want to do anything, but now they are doing one big thing" -- deciding the fate of the president.

The interplay among three parties -- the Republican Congress, the Democratic president and the independent counsel -- has colored all of Washington's triumphs and defeats this year.

President Clinton manhandled Republicans in the final weeks of Congress to extract concessions on education funding, international agencies, family planning and environmental policy.

Those concessions were possible because Republicans -- distracted by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and confident that they would prevail in budget talks with a wounded president -- waited until the final hour to pass the spending bills needed to keep the government running. That forced them to negotiate with the White House, rather than sending up a budget of their own making.

"It almost makes you laugh," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat. "They're talking about how weak the president is, how he can't run the country? It's a joke."

Republican leaders have defended Congress' record while looking to the future, when they envision additional seats in both chambers and possibly a Republican White House, for more momentous action.

"This Congress hasn't lessened our commitment to fundamental Republican principles," said House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "In fact, time has only made it stronger, and our greatest accomplishments are yet to come."

The Republican leaders of Congress had to walk a fine line between satisfying a conservative base intent on impeachment and not alienating the many Americans who are wary of Republican intentions in Congress. That problem crippled Republican legislative initiatives all year. Conservative and moderate Republicans could not unite around any large tax cuts, major bankruptcy reforms, an overhaul of banking laws or a plan to scrap the tax code.

"Republicans needed to send a message on what we really wanted, and people back home were saying we weren't doing that," Rep. David M. McIntosh, an Indiana Republican, said after last week's budget battle was largely won by Clinton. "That would be a fair criticism for the whole year."

Starr served as a constant distraction for both the White House and Congress. As most of the Democrats' legislative agenda was being defeated, a preoccupied president exerted little or no pressure on congressional leaders.

"Had the president not been distracted, some things might well have happened," Hess said.

The marquee initiatives of the year were Democratic priorities that gained scant Republican support: landmark anti-smoking legislation, campaign finance reform and managed care reforms. All of them failed, giving Democrats resonant issues to take to the voters, especially when juxtaposed with the action Congress did take, such as the renaming of Washington National Airport for Ronald Reagan and the presidential impeachment inquiry.

"This has been the worst Congress that's ever served in the Congress," House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt fumed this week, his eye on the position of speaker of the House. "You want to change the agenda, you've got to change the leadership of this Congress."

But Republican leaders say they had to exert much of their

energy to block costly liberal initia- tives that threatened the new budget surplus.

"We are a 'do-nothing-the-liberals-like' Congress," said Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, the House Republican whip.

Still, Republicans have been on the defensive, extolling the achievements of a major tax cut, the first balanced budget since 1969, and even welfare reform. The first two of those achievements actually came last year. The welfare bill was signed two years ago.

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