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Partisanship Doesn't Stop at the Water's Edge These Days

Foreign affairs is no longer an area where the parties unite behind the president. Poisonous atmosphere threatens administration's agenda.


WASHINGTON — Whatever the outcome of the Republican-led drive to impeach President Clinton, the poisonous atmosphere that permeates relations between the White House and the Capitol threatens to undermine key parts of the administration's agenda in an area once considered immune to partisan politics: foreign affairs.

Members of Congress and foreign policy experts both in and out of government say that the uproar over Clinton's affair with Monica S. Lewinsky has worsened the relationship between Clinton and congressional Republicans to a point where he is nearly as crippled in the conduct of foreign affairs as he is in his domestic agenda.

To be sure, there are exceptions.

If America itself is under attack, for example, Clinton can still count on bipartisan support. "There's very little doubt that his ability to lead the country . . . has been diminished, but not so much that he could not deliver the Congress and American people in time of crisis," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The reaction to U.S. embassy bombings in Africa demonstrated that. After extensive consultations with the White House, both House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) backed reprisal attacks ordered by Clinton against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.

But, to some, that case was merely an exception to a very different reality.

"That episode showed two things: how important such cooperation is and how rarely it's happening," said Joseph Cirincione, an arms control specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a congressional staff aide for nine years.

He and others noted that in areas where there are sharp differences between Clinton and congressional opponents--and there are many--the president's leverage clearly has been diminished.

"We're being attacked across the board on all foreign policy issues," summed up one administration official, who declined to be identified.

North Korea is just one example. A weakened president has found it tougher to resist congressional pressure to halt U.S. fuel oil shipments to North Korea even though intelligence reports say that North Korea may have broken its pledge to give up its nuclear development program.

In Congress, admitted an administration official who declined to be identified by name, "we just don't have any traction. More than anything else, we've got very little leverage from the White House right now."

On another front, Clinton has reportedly been forced to rely heavily on former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to build support among Republicans for military alternatives in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

In an effort to add to that support, Clinton's top national security team--including National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen--trooped to Capitol Hill last Thursday to brief senators behind closed doors on the Kosovo crisis.

Clinton also is likely to find it tougher than ever to overcome congressional resistance to provide new money for the International Monetary Fund or to float any new assistance package to help Russia through its economic turmoil, these sources believe.

And in the present political atmosphere, they added, Clinton can kiss goodbye any hopes he may have had of getting Congress to give ground in its standoff with the White House on payment of $1 billion in dues the United States owes to the United Nations.

Cumulatively, these developments point to a new, scandal-linked reality: A Republican-led Congress, with its unilateralist sentiments and its suspicions of international organizations and free-trade agreements, is likely to have a greater say in shaping the nation's foreign affairs.

Historians say that the erosion of presidential authority over foreign affairs began with the Vietnam War.

"When President Truman was asked who makes American foreign policy, he answered, 'I do,' " noted Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, a 34-year House veteran and ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "No president would say that today."

The passing of the Cold War has accelerated this trend and diminished the conviction that America's political differences should end at the water's edge.

And, for Clinton, the Lewinsky scandal has aggravated already testy relations between a Democratic president with no grand global political strategy and the many congressional Republicans who consider foreign affairs as just one more arena in which to exert leverage for their own domestic priorities.

The Republican ploy of attaching contentious antiabortion language to a bill authorizing payment of the nearly $1 billion the United States owes the United Nations is one oft-cited example.

"They deal with foreign policy as if they are bartering with $500 million worth of bridges on the highway bill," complained 26-year Senate veteran Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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