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Clinton Is Well Versed in How Business Gets Done in Congress

By Karen Tumulty and Michael Ross
Los Angeles Times


The last time a Southern Democratic governor rode into the White House on a mandate for change, he discovered that one of his biggest obstacles stood at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where his own party's legislative leaders proved to be some of his most formidable opponents.

Few here expect President-elect Bill Clinton to stumble into the same pitfalls that swallowed Jimmy Carter on Capitol Hill. While Carter's inability to understand and work with the warlords of a Democratic Congress ultimately became a critical failure of his presidency, Clinton and those around him are well versed in how business gets done in Congress.

And certainly a Congress that is struggling with an image of scandal and gridlock is more than willing to prove to voters that it can move forward. "Even Republicans are going to want to be showing the American public that we can produce," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.).

Clinton will begin his term with an enormous reservoir of good will among the congressional leaders most important to his success. On Thursday all 19 House committee chairmen returning for the 103rd Congress pledged in a letter to cooperate with Clinton, saying Americans "have sent us all a clear message. We hear them loud and clear."

Yet the new president will face his own set of potential problems with Congress. Often criticized as incapable of telling anyone "no" to his face, Clinton now will have to choose among an array of constituencies that contributed to his victory.

His often-vague campaign rhetoric left unresolved how he would balance the conflicting pressures he will encounter in trying simultaneously to reduce the deficit and revive the economy. Nor is it clear how he will satisfy the pent-up demands of his liberal supporters, whose agenda has languished under more than a decade in which the Republicans held the veto.

"There are a lot of half-starved special interest groups out there who are lining up to be fed," analyst William Schneider warned. "They'll think it's 1960 again and that this is the big barbecue."

Those liberal interests are heavily represented in the diverse group of new lawmakers who will make up the largest freshman class on Capitol Hill since 1948. "Clinton may be a `different kind of Democrat,' but most of the Democrats elected to Congress this year are of the old tax-and-spend variety," sneered a senior GOP congressional aide.

On the other side of the political spectrum, he can expect even more rowdiness from the Republican minority. Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole already has given notice that he plans to speak for those of Americans who voted for someone else.

The success of Clinton's legislative strategy is likely to lie, as Ronald Reagan's did, in concentrating on a few major areas. But Reagan's agenda -- reducing the size of government, cutting taxes and building up the military -- looks relatively simple against the tangle of seemingly intractable problems for which Clinton will be expected to provide solutions.

He has promised to deal with everything from soaring health care costs to international competition, but "if Clinton has too diffuse an agenda, that may weaken him. He needs to focus on things," said James D. Savage, a University of Virginia government professor.

Congressional leaders insist that the outlines of Clinton's strategy must become apparent even before Congress reconvenes in January. As one aide to the House Democratic leadership put it: "Everything is contingent upon how well the president-elect orchestrates the transition. He's got 10 or 11 weeks to build a crescendo for action across the country."

Clinton's relations with Congress are likely to come under pressure early, on two difficult votes. One is the difficult question of raising the ceiling on the national debt. Without it, the government cannot continue to operate; but the symbolism is always daunting.

The other involves the $40 billion needed to complete the current round of the savings and loan clean-up, which died last session when House Democrats refused to vote for it unless the Bush administration could deliver a majority of House Republicans to support what is seen as a bailout of 1980s excess.

In the past, Democratic leaders could count on some help from the Republican White House. Now, they are likely to have to walk the plank alone.

On tough questions such as these, Clinton probably will have to lobby Congress personally, "something we have not seen since the days of Lyndon Johnson," said Rep. Vic Fazio of California, who is a member of the House Democratic leadership.