Clinton comes out on top in latest budget deal vTC

October 19, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The front pages and the television screens have been filled with images of President Clinton and Republican congressional leaders congratulating themselves on their agreement on a $500 billion federal budget.

Just why this should be an occasion for self-congratulation is difficult to explain. All they have done is the minimum -- that is, approve the funding for the government so it can continue to function for another year. No one would mistake it for a thoughtful legislative process.

The whole charade has taught some valuable lessons, however, about the balance of political power in Washington these days. Despite the threat of impeachment hanging over his head, the president once again has carried the day. In terms of bragging rights, the marquee item in the new budget is his plan for funding 100,000 more school teachers. Opinion polls consistently show education second only to the economy as a concern of voters.

The Republicans won a few small victories, many of them of the kind that they find ideologically pleasing even if they don't have much practical effect. The Republican increase in defense spending represents a substantial success, but the same can hardly be said of abolishing the needle-exchange program for drug addicts in Washington, D.C.

The Republicans didn't get the tax reductions they have been touting all year -- and will continue to tout in their campaigns for re-election between now and Nov. 3. But they did make one of their ideological points by putting anti-abortion strings on U.S. payment of back dues to the United Nations. By contrast in order of magnitude, Mr. Clinton won the almost $18 billion for the International Monetary Fund that the Republicans had been resisting all year.

Mr. Clinton's success in holding out and finally winning on most of the major questions can be traced directly to the political fiasco the Republicans suffered when they shut down the federal government three years ago. Lacking that option now and for the foreseeable future, Congress has little choice but to yield to the White House in the end.

There is, however, a broader political lesson in the outcome of the budget fight. It is becoming increasingly apparent that every time the GOP congressional leaders get into a confrontation with the president, they lose politically. Polls repeatedly show them to be perceived as more partisan and negative than Mr. Clinton.

One of the contributing factors in this Republican problem is the way the voters seem to react against their most visible leader, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The rule seems to be that the higher his profile, the higher his disapproval ratings.

How this will play out in the election next month is anyone's guess. The most recent samplings of the public temperature suggest the Republicans have been slipping, probably because their partisan zeal was too obvious in beginning an impeachment inquiry against Mr. Clinton.

But there is also enough of a malaise in the Democratic Party growing out of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that no one expects high voter turnout behind the party's candidates.

The outcome is particularly significant because of the impact it could have on the impeachment process. It is hard to imagine the Republicans pressing on with impeachment if there remains a substantial majority of Americans who are opposed -- unless, of course, there is some new evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the president beyond what independent counsel Kenneth Starr has already put on the table.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton has demonstrated in the budget fight that, despite his problems, he can continue to function well enough to keep the government running. That is not the same thing as being able to negotiate an agreement with the Republicans on a politically volatile issue such as Social Security, but it is enough to give him a reason to be boasting in the Rose Garden.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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