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The Beginning of the Endgame

Get ready for one last showdown between Congress and Clinton

Sep 11, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 48 • By MATTHEW REES
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AS CONGRESSIONAL REPUBLICANS return to Washington this week, preparing for their final budget scrum with Bill Clinton, they're gripped by a familiar emotion: fear. Fear that they will end up capitulating to costly Democratic health care proposals covering HMOs and prescription drugs. Fear that they can't count on George W. Bush, who has studiously distanced himself from Capitol Hill. And fear that no matter how much they compromise their principles in order to adjourn by the end of the fiscal year, October 1, Bill Clinton will force a government shutdown, whereupon public opinion will turn against them, and they'll lose their majorities in Congress.

Based on recent history, Republican fears are entirely justified. In the titanic budget showdown from November 1995 to January 1996, the GOP got slaughtered in the public relations war. As a result, in 1996 and 1998, during the year-end budget wrangling, Republicans were so eager to prevent another government shutdown they agreed to Democrats' demands for billions in new spending.

Amazingly, for all the GOP grousing in years past about paying such exorbitant exit fees, the party looks doomed to repeat the pattern. As even John Kasich, chairman of the House Budget Committee, conceded recently on Meet the Press, "Bill Clinton, along with Al Gore, is going to demand more spending. . . . And you know what? They will get more spending."

The best illustration of the GOP's defensive crouch is a letter Hastert sent Clinton on August 27. In it, the House speaker agreed to a Democratic proposal to raise the hourly minimum wage to $ 6.15 over the next two years, and withdrew his request that the wage increase be linked to expanded pension coverage and a repeal of the estate tax. The timing of the letter -- sent more than a week before Congress even reconvened, and just a few days after John Podesta, the White House chief of staff, had sent Hastert a tartly worded letter about Clinton administration priorities -- suggested preemptive surrender. Making matters worse, Hastert's letter angered Senate Republican leaders, who were given no advance notice of it. "Counterproductive," was the diplomatic assessment of one GOP leadership aide.

Yet even if Hastert and Lott reach agreements with the White House -- a big if -- they'll still have to contend with congressional Democrats. Tom Daschle, the Senate Democratic leader, has previewed his party's combative posture, saying, "It's either going to take a lot of cooperation, or you're going to see a train wreck." The Democratic mindset is that it's better to hold out at this late stage in order to prevent Republicans from taking credit for anything. "This is no time to take half a loaf," says a Democratic leadership aide, pointing to the Kennedy-Kassebaum health care bill of 1996 as the kind of measure to be avoided because it "allowed Republicans to get off cheap." And while House Democrats might feel more pressure to adjourn, in the interest of getting home to campaign, the only Senate Democratic incumbent who's in a truly tight race is Chuck Robb, and he represents neighboring Virginia.

Given all this, Republicans have been devising a variety of damage-control strategies. Votes to override Clinton's veto of bills ending the marriage penalty and the estate tax will be held soon. And to counter Clinton's call for mandating a new prescription drug benefit, GOP senators Wayne Allard and Bob Smith have put forward a market-oriented plan that would not result in premium hikes.

Most Republicans are spooked by the prescription-drug issue, believing it's the one legislative issue that could cause them to lose their congressional majorities. But Senator Spencer Abraham, a Michigan Republican in a tight reelection race, has turned it to his advantage. He's charging that the Democratic proposal embraced by his opponent, Debbie Stabenow, would lead to annual premiums of $ 600 -- "a prescription for disaster," according to his television ads. Abraham has so neutralized the issue, says his campaign manager, Joe McMonigle, that "we're happy to have one vote after another" on it. Indeed, since launching these ads against Stabenow, Abraham has surged to a nine-point lead.

Another defensive strategy: Trent Lott has brought John McCain into his inner circle of advisers. While the two have traditionally had frosty relations, Lott nonetheless plans to make the former presidential candidate the GOP's public face during the budget negotiations. McCain's reputation for candor has some Republicans questioning the wisdom of this. But others recognize that with his personal popularity, and coziness with the media, he's the only one in the GOP who's a match for Clinton in a budget debate.

Assuming Congress can't reach a budget agreement with the White House by the October 1 deadline, Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell has been floating an idea that is being well received among Republicans. Come October, says McConnell, Congress should pass one temporary measure after another keeping the government open, with spending set at current levels or a little bit higher. The idea is that if Clinton vetoed one of these resolutions, which would result in a government shutdown, he would be the clear villain, and all Democrats would suffer.

This might work, though given the way in which congressional Republicans have been snookered by Clinton in past budget battles, it's natural to wonder whether any strategy to stare him down can succeed. Indeed, that's one reason Republicans are quaking in their boots. In a letter to his Republican colleagues last week, Lott wrote, "Let me make this clear. Congress will not bring about a government shutdown, and there is no reason for there to be a government shutdown."

A messy budget showdown might hurt congressional Republicans -- but it could also benefit Bush. It would entail the reemergence of Clinton -- hardly a good thing for Gore. Indeed, says Scott Reed, Bob Dole's campaign manager in 1996, "if Clinton tries to manufacture a budget fight, it will gut Gore." Reed is not alone in thinking this way. Many Republicans believe Bush could use a budget battle as a potent symbol of what's wrong with Washington, underscoring the need for his bipartisan brand of governing. Of course, while that would sully Gore and congressional Democrats, it would also, by extension, sully congressional Republicans.

Would Bush dare adopt such a pose so close to the election? You bet. He never mentioned the Republicans on Capital Hill in his speech at the GOP convention, and he even remarked, "I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years."

Bush's objective between now and Election Day is simple: to remain as detached from the shenanigans in Congress as possible. Given the Republican record of recent years, and the likely outcome this year, it's hard to blame him.

Matthew Rees is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.