Clinton policy goals falter

Expected cooperation with Republicans blocked by antipathy

Outlook for next year dim

Presidents' 8th years are historically short on accomplishments

November 21, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Ten months ago, as a team of lawyers was launching his impeachment defense, President Clinton strode into the House chamber to propose, in his State of the Union address, one of the most ambitious policy agendas of his presidency, including a revolution in Social Security financing, a pricey expansion of Medicare coverage and the linkage of federal education aid to student performance.

Now, with Congress adjourned for the year, the White House is boasting again of besting the Republicans in the budget battle. But Clinton's legislative ambitions, proposed in part to burnish his legacy, have largely gone unmet.

And as his presidency enters its final year, in a heated election season in which his wife and his vice president might be candidates, Clinton's chances of major legislative accomplishments have never been slimmer.

The eighth year of a presidency has almost always been bleak, overshadowed by a presidential election that will determine a successor, marred by the departure of top administration officials and stymied by a Congress that has nothing to fear from a departing chief executive.

And Clinton must contend with Vice President Al Gore's efforts to distance himself from his boss, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's expected bid for a New York Senate seat, a House Republican leadership barely clinging to its five-vote majority in Congress and an uncooperative Democratic caucus eager to regain control by painting the Republicans as feckless and unproductive.

"If you think he was facing tough obstacles this year, next year will be far worse," said Leon E. Panetta, Clinton's first chief of staff.

Clinton again fared well in the annual budget showdown, extracting $6 billion from Republicans to pay back dues to the United Nations; fund 29,000 new teachers and thousands more police officers; implement the Wye River Mideast peace accords; make nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union more secure; and purchase wilderness lands in New Mexico, California and Florida.

What the president could not accomplish in Congress, he attempted to achieve by executive action, suing the tobacco industry, increasing privacy protections for medical records, protecting rivers and forests on federal land, and tightening emissions standards on sport utility vehicles.

In coming weeks, Clinton plans to issue an order allowing states to use unemployment insurance to support parents taking leave to care for a newborn or adopted child.

And his aides could legitimately claim that their priorities -- extending the solvency of Social Security, restraining managed care, restricting gun sales and improving access to prescription drugs -- have dominated legislative debate.

But predictions early this year that 1999 would be especially productive proved to be off-base. The Republican Congress and the White House could not get beyond personal antipathy to work together for the interests of both.

"There is a little bit of disappointment," said White House senior policy adviser Ann Lewis, hinting that Clinton would turn increasingly toward executive actions to work his will.

Before leaving town, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott took a parting shot, berating White House Chief of Staff John Podesta for "attacking members of Congress by name," slamming White House spokesman Joe Lockhart for "his cynical, snide cracks" and calling Clinton "the most partisan president I've ever seen."

"The bottom line is, you've got two groups of people who hate each other," said Donald Kettl, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin LaFollette Institute for Public Affairs. "The level of personal antipathy between the White House and Capitol Hill is almost at historical levels, certainly not [seen] since Watergate."

After the impeachment trial, pundits predicted that a president eager to burnish his historical legacy would find common cause with an unpopular Republican congressional leadership eager for legislative accomplishments.

The president gave Congress plenty of ideas to choose from: a Social Security proposal that envisioned investing up to $700 billion in federal budget surpluses in the stock market; a Medicare reform package that included adding a popular prescription drug benefit; tax breaks for long-term health care and child care; a proposal to link federal education aid to student performance; and a call to raise the federal cigarette tax by 55 cents.

"He may have calculated that if he could beat impeachment, he could do just about anything," said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in Pomona, Calif. "And when you see how it looked in the wake of the Lewinsky case, that was a natural reaction."

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