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Forget Scandal--the Real Question Is: What Happens in Congress Now?

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 Clinton.

November 23, 1998|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

For all of their creepy allure, the most revealing thing about the Linda Tripp-Monica S. 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, a moldering chronicle of events already dissolving from memory. 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 Kenneth W. Starr's defiantly unflappable performance before the House Judiciary Committee barely dented the public consensus against impeachment. Like the obsessive British colonel in the classic movie, committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) seems determined to build his bridge over the River Kwai, no matter what the cost--or the implications for his side in the battle. But a growing number of congressional Republicans seem understandably reluctant to follow him. Even after Starr took his best shot, the only suspense is over when and how Republicans terminate the impeachment process--and whether and how they censure President Clinton for dishonoring his office.

The real question is: What happens after that? For most of 1998, the conventional wisdom held that even if Clinton survived he could no longer govern. Yet that assumption now seems as obsolete as most media predictions about the scandal. As Mario Cuomo once observed, Americans may not want Bill Clinton to date their sister, but they clearly want him to run the country. When asked in a recent Pew Research Center poll whom they wanted to take the lead in solving the nation's problems, 49% chose Clinton, while only 26% picked the Republican leaders in Congress.

Besides that public sentiment, one other tail wind may help 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 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, Clinton's top domestic policy advisor. 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 important, 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 (D-Los Angeles) and House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas J. Bliley (R-Va.) 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.

That effort died when House Speaker Newt Gingrich ordered 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. "If you were in the Republican leadership and trying to figure a way to chart a more reasonable path," says Reed, "you'd go there immediately."

Beyond those two issues, the forecast gets murky. An increase in the minimum wage may be within reach, but there's still little GOP enthusiasm for the idea. It's possible to imagine a grand compromise on education in which Clinton accepts the Republican proposal to create tax-favored accounts to help pay private-school tuition, and the GOP accepts some of his education initiatives--such as help for communities building new schools. With Republican governors (including Texas' George W. Bush) pushing to end social promotion, the two sides might also be able to agree on Clinton's plan to help states pay for such reforms. And in a recent interview, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) surprisingly signaled interest in a stimulative tax cut--which will undoubtedly be a top GOP priority.

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.

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