After impeachment fizzles, GOP may compromise more

November 24, 1998|By Ronald Brownstein

FOR ALL of their creepy allure, the most revealing thing about the Linda Tripp-Monica Lewinsky tapes was how few ripples they produced when they finally surfaced last week. Even more than the transcripts released earlier this fall, the tapes seemed like artifacts from an ancient culture. It was like listening to voices from beyond the grave.

If this month's election left any doubt, the collective shrug that greeted the tapes' release showed how emphatically Americans have closed the book on this scandal. Overnight polls showed that even independent counsel Kenneth Starr's defiantly unflappable performance before the House Judiciary Committee barely dented the public consensus against impeachment.

How to end it

Like the obsessive British colonel in the classic movie, committee chairman Henry Hyde seems determined to build his bridge over the River Kwai, no matter what the cost. But a growing number of congressional Republicans seem understandably reluctant to follow him. Even after Mr. Starr took his best shot, the only suspense is over when and how Republicans terminate the impeachment process.

The real question is: What happens after that? For most of 1998, the conventional wisdom held that even if Mr. Clinton survived, he could no longer govern. Yet that assumption now seems as obsolete as most media predictions about the scandal.

When asked in a recent Pew Research Center poll whom they wanted to take the lead in solving the nation's problems, 49 percent chose Mr. Clinton, while 26 percent picked congressional Republicans.

Besides that public sentiment, one other tail wind may help Mr. Clinton advance more of a legislative agenda in 1999 than in 1998. After offering the voters little more than stalemate this year, many (though not all) Republicans have concluded that their chances of holding Congress in 2000 will improve if they can now produce some agreements with Mr. Clinton -- just as progress on issues such as welfare helped them defend their majority in 1996. In the coming session, argues GOP pollster Whit Ayres, Republicans must "demonstrate that the system as currently constructed can work."

If the two sides want to accomplish more in 1999, the obvious place to start is "with things that got close to the goal line last time," says Bruce Reed, Mr. Clinton's top domestic policy adviser. Two of those stand out.

Last July, a coalition of House Democrats and moderate Republicans came within five votes of passing managed care reform that would allow patients to sue their HMOs. After the election gave the Democrats five new House seats -- and just as importantly changed the climate on Capitol Hill -- Democrats believe they may now have a majority for that bill in the House, and possibly the Senate. The question will be whether the GOP leadership is willing to let the legislation move forward.

That same question looms over proposals to combat teen

smoking. After last year's anti-tobacco package sank under its huge increase in cigarette taxes, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, and House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley Jr., a Virginia Republican, drafted a tax-free alternative that would have clarified federal authority to regulate nicotine and imposed significant penalties on tobacco companies if teen smoking didn't decline.

Getting things done

That effort died when House Speaker Newt Gingrich ordered Mr. Bliley to snuff it out. But the Waxman-Bliley deal could easily be revived if the new House GOP leadership wants to show it can get things done.

Two unanswered questions shadow all these possibilities. Neither side can seriously advance new spending or tax-cutting proposals until they decide how much of the budget surplus to devote to Social Security. And they can't do that until they agree on a plan for reforming the system.

But the prospects for such an agreement appear to be dim. Republicans probably won't accept a deal that does not establish individual accounts that workers could use to invest for their own retirement; but while Mr. Clinton hasn't closed the door, Democratic opposition to the idea hardened in this year's campaign.

With private White House economic forecasts projecting huge federal surpluses deep into next century, congressional Democrats may resist any significant restructuring of Social Security.

That comment hints at the second major question looming over HTC next year: In the end, how much does either side want to accomplish? After effectively tagging Republicans with a "do-nothing" label in this campaign, House Democrats may prefer a mostly stalemated session that allows them to reprise the charge in 2000.

Ronald Brownstein is a Los Angeles Times columnist.

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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