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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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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.