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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

Democrats Could Rally--or Retreat

January 27, 1998|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As 535 members of Congress return to Washington today to ponder the future of President Clinton, few will be as closely watched as a small group of Democrats whose support is considered essential--and whose defections could prove disastrous.

While other lawmakers certainly can influence the course of events, it is this handful of Clinton loyalists who serve as bellwethers of the president's political base within his own party.

In the Senate, the roster includes Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, centrist Democrat John B. Breaux of Louisiana and liberals Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. On the House side, Clinton requires the continued support of a small band of "New Democrats."

If that cadre of Democratic allies begins to turn on Clinton, the end will surely be near, fellow Democrats say. That's what happened in 1974 when Republican leaders in Congress went to the White House to tell Richard Nixon that GOP support for him had cratered.

It may never come to that, and it surely has not come to that yet. Democrats are still hunkering down in a wait-and-see crouch in the face of charges that Clinton had a sexual affair with a White House intern and then lied about it.

But over the next few days and weeks, these are the people to watch. Few developments in the political arena could be more dangerous to Clinton than a determination by his political allies and loyalists that his troubles are hurting the party or making it impossible for him to govern.

"The question here is, once this is over, can he be effective as president?" asked Clinton ally Tony Coelho, a former House member from California who resigned from Congress after he was hit with a barrage of allegations of financial improprieties. Although Coelho said he does not think that Clinton is already hobbled, "I want to see what happens over the next week."

The support of Clinton's congressional loyalists is particularly important because his relationship with House and Senate Democrats has long been deeply strained. Clinton has frequently put himself at odds with the liberal wing of his party, which dominates the House Democratic Caucus, by pushing for a balanced budget, welfare reform and free-trade policies.

Increasing the tension, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) is a potential rival to Vice President Al Gore for their party's presidential nomination in 2000. "This is a problem," said one Clintonite. "Clinton is not well liked among Democrats in Congress."

Of those who count themselves among Clinton's allies, few are close to him personally.

"It's evolved into a business relationship," said one senior Senate Democratic aide. "The respect in their relationship is based on the job he's doing. If he stops doing the job well, you'd have to say this support would evaporate."

In this crunch period, some of his supporters have come through with private words of encouragement. Kennedy, who has sailed and socialized with Clinton during summer vacations in Martha's Vineyard, called Clinton Thursday night to "buck him up," according to a source familiar with the conversation.

"He told him to hang in there and that we've got to keep our eye on moving forward with the agenda and not to be too sidetracked by all this," the source said.

That's the kind of message the party apparatus is sending out to the rank-and-file. "While current allegations regarding President Clinton have dominated the news for the last week, we need to continue to focus on the issues that are important to voters," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said in a memo sent Monday to all House Democrats.

But even after Clinton issued a new, more forceful denial of the allegations Monday morning, anxiety among Democrats was running high, and even his loyalists were surprisingly tepid.

"People are baffled," said one party operative. "People are wanting [his explanation] to be true but not quite sure what to believe."

Breaux, who talked to Clinton on Sunday and described him as "upbeat and positive," offered these observations Monday: "I'm confident that the truth will come out," and "we'll have to see how this plays out." Those are remarkably restrained comments from a colorful Cajun who has for a decade been Clinton's political soul-mate in their effort to push the Democratic Party to the center.

Daschle, who has been a key Clinton ally and a staunch loyalist on legislative matters, has said nothing about the controversy beyond a terse, noncommittal statement issued last week. He returned to Washington on Monday and quizzed his staff about what more was known and what other senators were saying.

"He's very, very focused on, OK, how do I get attention focused on the things we need to do?" said a Senate Democratic source.

"Daschle is probably the most influential Democrat in Washington," Coelho said. "If he were to say something negative, it would be very damaging to the president."

Clinton's core constituency in the House is the 30-member New Democrat Coalition, which has hitched its collective political fortune to the president's brand of centrist politics.

The coalition's members met Monday with Gore. As they emerged, many seemed to be struggling to erect a public facade of support for Clinton, even while harboring private doubts.

Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), a leader of the group, conceded that concern among House Democrats is broad and deep.

"Certainly the mood of congressional Democrats is one of concern and worry--that we don't want to be talking about the president's social life for the next nine months," Roemer said. "But there are some very legitimate and disturbing questions now."

Said Rep. John S. Tanner (D-Tenn.), "I think we're all waiting for the facts to come out."

Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.

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