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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Lawmakers Return to a 'Surreal' Hill

Congress: New legislative session is to start this week amid distraction of controversy. Top Republicans remain surprisingly mum.

January 26, 1998|JANET HOOK and JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Returning to an environment one senior lawmaker described as "surreal," members of Congress will launch a new legislative session this week in a state of utter turmoil over the furor surrounding President Clinton.

House and Senate members, who generally approach a new session with a fresh-start sense of purpose, will reconvene Tuesday dazed, confused and uncertain about some of the most basic facts of political life:

Will Clinton deliver his annual State of the Union address as scheduled? Will he be able to keep his legislative agenda on track? Will he still be president a year, even a month, from now?

"Nothing would surprise me," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.).

"It's weird," Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said on ABC-TV's "This Week." "It's going to be fascinating to watch."

Lawmakers already are being bombarded with questions about the Clinton controversy they would prefer not to have to answer. Some of Clinton's most vitriolic critics--as well as some of his staunchest allies--have fallen strangely silent.

But once they return en masse to the political hothouse of Washington, it will be increasingly difficult for them to dodge the issue.

Congress returns from a long recess to a legislative landscape transformed by the political equivalent of a neutron bomb: the spectacular allegations that Clinton had a sexual relationship with a White House intern and then lied about it.

The uproar has created a blinding distraction from the normal rituals and rhythms of a new session of Congress. Some have wondered if Clinton will postpone his State of the Union address, scheduled for Tuesday, rather than let the big speech be eclipsed by personal controversy.

Although the White House denied that option was ever under consideration, White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles called four top congressional leaders--House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.)--at home Saturday to sound them out about how the speech would be received.

"It was really just to say that they were intending to go through with the State of the Union," said Laura Nichols, Gephardt's spokeswoman. "Mr. Gephardt concurred that that was the best thing to do."

The situation is so rife with uncertainty that lawmakers and staff have been reduced to speculating about who will attend the speech, who will applaud, what the mood will be like.

"Surreal," was Hyde's prediction. "I hope we are civil."

Republican leaders have been holding their fire with remarkable restraint. Lott has been consistently dodging comment on Clinton's troubles, but that has given him an opportunity to cast himself practically as the guardian of responsible government.

"It would be totally inappropriate for me to comment," Lott said on "This Week." "My job as majority leader is that I should be working on the agenda for this year. We should be prepared to address issues."

Even the irrepressible Gingrich has immovably declined comment.

In this Alice-in-Wonderland political world, people have been thinking and talking about things that a week ago were unthinkable and unmentionable.

On national television shows, members of Congress have openly discussed the prospects of impeachment. Republicans have appeared gunshy about the idea, as if they are reluctant to pull the trigger on a loaded weapon that had been handed to them unexpectedly.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), speaking on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press," predicted the matter will not come to impeachment. "I do not believe Congress is going to impeach the president unless there is an open-and-shut case," Specter said. If there is an open-and-shut case, he said, "the president will resign."

Hyde said he did not see impeachment in the cards. That's not because he assumes Clinton will overcome the situation, but because there aren't enough Democratic senators who would vote for impeachment. "I don't see that happening yet," Hyde said.

The Capitol Hill rumor mill inevitably has turned to speculation about who might get a promotion if Vice President Al Gore becomes president and the No. 2 job is suddenly open. Among the names being bandied about is Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) who just last week decided against running for governor--in part, some speculated, because she thought she might be tapped as a running mate for Gore in 2000.

Even before the Clinton controversy broke, Congress was not expected to do much serious legislative business until mid-February or later. Now, earnest lawmakers are throwing up their hands at the prospects of doing any serious business.

"The distraction level has reached obsession in this town," said Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.).

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