The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 40.0°F | Mostly Cloudy

Clinton Office, Republican Congress Near an Impasse

By Ronald Brownstein and Janet Hook
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

Suddenly, it's beginning to look a lot like gridlock.

Just more than two months after President Clinton proudly hailed the massive deal to balance the federal budget as a "monument" to bipartisanship, his administration and the Republican Congress again are battling to impasse on a formidable list of issues - from the campaign finance reform legislation that collapsed in the Senate Tuesday to the anti-abortion measure approved by the House Wednesday.

From the environment to education, from the courts to the Internal Revenue Service, the two sides are steaming toward new standoffs - and precious few bill-signing ceremonies.

This recoil from bipartisanship reflects the aversion among activists in both parties - but especially among Republicans - to the deal-making strategy that allowed Clinton and Congress to claim progress on an array of concerns from mid-1996 through this summer. But these agreements also blunted the differences between the parties that had been so clear during the 1995-96 budget battle.

"What happened in 1995 is we pursued the ideal and in so doing we got beat up a little bit by the president over the so-called government shutdown," said Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., a leading critic of the deal-making strategy. "And I think everybody said: Boy that wasn't fun, let's try something else.' So we tried something else - but we got beat up by our own gang. I think everybody has come to the conclusion (that) we'd rather be beat up by the other guys than be beat up by our own guys."

Clinton's tone has not changed as dramatically as the GOP's. But his constantly recalibrated balancing of cooperation and confrontation has assumed a harder edge recently as Republicans have sharpened their challenges to him.

Since the budget deal, Clinton has rebuffed GOP calls to test school vouchers in Washington, D.C., threatened to veto an appropriations bill over Republican efforts to block use of statistical sampling in the 2000 Census and accused the GOP in harsh terms of "creating a vacancy crisis" by moving slowly to consider his federal court nominees.

Significant factions in each party continue to prefer conciliation. Most Senate Democrats, centrist House Democrats and moderate Republicans found their influence enhanced when both sides were trying to build coalitions. And some measures continue to attract broad support. Many appropriations bills are moving along nicely. The House easily passed a Food and Drug Administration reform bill Tuesday by voice vote. The recent congressional pay raise drew broad support.

But such moments of comity are becoming increasingly rare, especially on front-burner issues.

The escalating conflicts between Clinton and Congress, although less intense, recall 1995, when the new GOP majority pursued a strategy of unremitting confrontation. That approach - which culminated in two government shutdowns - thrilled GOP activists. But it drove Congress' approval ratings down to a level that gave Democrats hope of regaining control in last fall's election.

When he succeeded Bob Dole as Senate majority leader in 1996, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., engineered an abrupt change in direction. He negotiated a series of deals with Clinton on issues such as welfare reform and the minimum wage that bolstered Congress' standing with the public and helped the GOP preserve its control in last year's vote.

That strategy reached its apogee this summer with the sweeping agreement to balance the budget by 2002. After the deal, both Clinton and Congress saw their public approval ratings spike upward.

"There was certainly enough feedback from the public that cooperation and achieving things pays off to incumbents," said pollster Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

But within the GOP, many strategists viewed these gains as ephemeral - and warned that the party risked losses in the 1998 election if it did not give energy to its core supporters through more hard-edged battles with Clinton.

That argument has drawn support from a chorus of conservative pundits, the small group of House conservatives who plotted a coup against House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., last summer and many of the GOP leaders exploring potential presidential candidacies in 2000.