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Clinton Flexing Veto Clout as Congress Nears Finale

Politics: Republicans add to his power by shunning measures that could be used against them in elections.

October 10, 1998|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congress may be taking President Clinton to task over his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky, but Clinton remains a force to be reckoned with as lawmakers race to finish spending bills and other legislation this weekend so they can go home to campaign for reelection.

Although Clinton faces an impeachment inquiry by the House, he still has his veto threat--and he has been using it in the waning days of this Congress to reshape or block legislation that affects policies from farm assistance to summer-job programs to reform of bankruptcy laws.

Strengthening his hand has been the strategy of Republicans, who have been reluctant to pick fights that could hand Clinton potent issues to use against them on the campaign trail. In an effort to hasten Congress' adjournment, the GOP in recent days has backed down on several thorny proposals, ranging from efforts to cut social spending to abortion-related disputes.

Still, many battles remain to be fought--so many that Congress is expected to work into next week to wrap up the year's appropriations bills, which must be passed to keep the government running, and other legislation.

Battle lines hardened Friday as budget talks bogged down. Clinton insisted that he would hang tough on behalf of his administration's education initiatives, including funding for school construction, reducing class sizes and after-school programs.

"This budget is purely and simply a test of whether after nine months of doing nothing we are going to do the right thing about our children's future," Clinton said after meeting with Democratic congressional leaders to plot legislative strategy.

Republicans signaled an equal resolve to oppose the increased spending required by Clinton's priorities. "We're willing to stay here as long as it takes to get the people's business done," said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). "The American people don't want more spending."

He May Be Less Able to Advance Agenda

The outcome of these and other 11th-hour negotiations will be a test of the extent and limits of Clinton's continuing power in the midst of the crisis that surrounds his presidency. He continues to possess the institutional power to block and shape legislation advanced by a GOP-controlled Congress, but he may have less ability to lead and advance his own agenda.

"The veto is a powerful tool, and it's even powerful in the hand of a seemingly weak president," said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution. "But he's lost some of the ability to focus the public on a compelling agenda."

In the wake of the House's vote Thursday to open an impeachment inquiry stemming from Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky, lawmakers have turned most of their attention to the one thing that stands between them and the adjournment of the 105th Congress: passing the appropriations bills.

Congressional leaders had hoped to adjourn by Friday, when stopgap funding for the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1 was to run out. But with major budget issues still in dispute with the White House, the House approved another stopgap bill to keep money flowing until midnight Monday. The Senate quickly followed suit Friday night, and Clinton signed the legislation just hours before the deadline expired.

But by late Friday afternoon, lawmakers were predicting that another extension will be needed--perhaps running through the end of next week--before the budget disputes are resolved.

After making some progress earlier this week, GOP leaders Friday accused the administration of foot-dragging in the negotiations. "The president still has not put his cards on the table," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La.).

GOP leaders have been hoping for a quick exit and a less confrontational approach with Clinton for a variety of reasons, strategists said. They fear that Republicans will be the political losers if a stalemate ends in a government shutdown--as was the case in late 1995 and early 1996. They figure that they will have more Republicans in Congress after the Nov. 3 elections. And they want to keep the spotlight on Clinton's impeachment troubles, not on his policy disputes with them.

"When we're here, we become the punching bag," said one House Republican leader who asked not to be named. "When we're not here, it's the White House versus the press. That's a much prettier picture."

Against that backdrop, Clinton's threats to veto spending bills over particular provisions have carried additional weight.

Republicans Agree to Concessions

Budget negotiators reported that Republicans have agreed tentatively to give Clinton much of what he wanted in funding for energy assistance for the poor, summer jobs for youth and other social programs the House wanted to cut or eliminate. That is a concession not just to Clinton, but also to the many moderate Republicans from the Northeast for whom summer jobs and energy aid were a top priority.

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