Clinton, Congress prepare for final round

President's last year may produce real results in break with tradition

January 24, 2000|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress will begin this week to write the final chapter of their tumultuous relationship amid guarded expectations that they may upend lame-duck tradition and get something meaningful done.

As lawmakers straggle back from their long winter's break, optimists in both political parties hold out hope for enactment of legislation this year that would regulate the managed care industry, raise the minimum wage, provide targeted tax breaks and improve health care for military personnel.

Longshot odds are offered on the prospect that Clinton and the GOP leaders may be able to come to terms by fall on a prescription drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries.

"There's no chance they're going to deal with the really big issues, like restructuring Social Security or Medicare," predicted Robert Greenstein of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "But I think it's most likely they will get a few pieces of significant legislation passed."

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the congressional session in this eighth year of the president's tenure serve mostly as a forum for rhetorical jockeying as the campaign to choose Clinton's successor moves into high gear.

With control of Congress also hanging in the balance of this year's elections, the strategy of lawmakers in both parties discourages a highly productive agenda.

"The watchword for the Republicans is caution; they want to avoid any self-inflicted wounds," said Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The grand design for Democrats will be to create as much chaos as possible on the Republicans' watch."

Clinton, too, has put a top priority on affecting the outcome of the elections. He believes his legacy would be powerfully enhanced by the ascension of his vice president, Al Gore, and a Democratic takeover of one or both houses of Congress.

But the president has also declared that he has no intention of fading quietly into the background. He told reporters last week that he wished he could go without sleep for a year to make the most of the time he has left in office.

"I just want to milk every last moment of every day," Clinton said.

For the first time in Clinton's presidency, there is extra money to spend. Revised revenue estimates due shortly are expected to show a surplus of nearly $1 trillion over the next 10 years -- not counting Social Security money and assuming that the 1997 budget ceilings are abandoned.

"As usual, Clinton is going to play a more substantive role than anyone imagines," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

"He is exceptionally skillful and clever in helping to shape the agenda in ways that force Republicans to find a compromise when they would prefer to emphasize the differences," Mann said.

The noisy clash of philosophies and personalities that has characterized this era of divided government is likely to be more muted this year, however. The bold ideas of the left and the right once offered by the Democratic president and his GOP foils respectively have been replaced by a competition to find safety in the center.

Congressional Republicans have ditched their plans for a giant tax-cut bill, which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called the "crown jewel" of their agenda. Voters failed to rally behind the $792 billion measure the GOP pushed through last year and offered no protest when Clinton vetoed it.

Instead, GOP leaders are developing a plan to enact smaller but more visible tax cuts -- such as eliminating the "marriage penalty" for two-income couples -- and using part of the surplus to pay down the national debt within 15 years.

"We got no credit for the tax bill last year, all anybody knew about it was the total number," said Tony Rudy, an aide to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay.

But voters like the idea of retiring debt, a traditional Republican theme that Clinton adopted last year while the congressional leaders were pushing tax cuts.

"I hope the president will join us in seizing this incredible opportunity," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said last week as though Clinton had never addressed the topic. "The goal of having a responsible, debt-free government is within sight."

The goal of paying down the debt is a particularly pragmatic one; it is both popular and relatively easy to achieve. If surplus money doesn't get spent on tax cuts or new programs, it goes automatically to retire government bonds.

"The Republicans are embracing failure," said James Thurber, director of Congressional Studies at the American University. "It's what would happen anyway, but they are declaring `This is what we want.' "

The president is also scaling back his ambitions. His final State of the Union address, to be delivered Thursday, has been preceded by the usual dazzling new proposals showcased by leaks and press conferences.

But his centerpiece offering, a $110 billion expansion of health care coverage through the Medicare program, is a shadow of its predecessor.

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