WASHINGTON -- Bill Clinton's gift for compartmentalizing will be put to the ultimate test next year: Can an impeached president work with adversaries in Congress to find a solution to sensitive political problems in an atmosphere poisoned almost beyond imagination?
A legislative agenda topped by Social Security reform -- an agenda that also embraces tax cuts, health care regulation, a defense buildup and proposals for improving schools and day care for welfare mothers -- holds great appeal for lawmakers as well as the White House.
But as the Senate moves to put the president on trial or censure him harshly -- or both -- many question whether any other legislative business can be achieved by fall, when the 2000 presidential race will begin to dominate Washington politics.
"The easy answer would be 'No,' " said Martin C. Corry, a lobbyist for the American Association of Retired Persons. "But this atmosphere is so volatile and unpredictable that anyone who says they know what's going to happen is probably wrong."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who is trying to work out a deal with Republicans for a censure that would allow Clinton to avoid a trial, says he is pessimistic about legislative progress unless a speedy impeachment bargain is reached.
"We only have about nine months to get something done before the election season starts," Daschle said. "If we spend a third or more of that on a trial, then I think our opportunity for getting anything else done is lost."
But others argue that there's a countervailing force at play: Congressional Republicans share with Clinton a keen interest in being remembered for accomplishments beyond their role in the unpopular impeachment drama.
Many of the Republican senators facing re-election in two years come from Rust Belt states in the Northwest and Midwest, where many voters are more interested in federal help for their ailing cities and other economic problems than in ideological warfare against the president.
"We understand that we represent difficult states and that we have to work that much harder," said Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who will seek a second term in 2000. "It would probably be better for us not to have a Congress where nothing gets done because we're mired in partisan battle."
At the same time, Santorum, who has made Social Security reform his top priority, said he can easily envision his sitting in judgment of Clinton as a juror while negotiating with the president over how to restructure the federal retirement program to boost the return on its investments.
"I don't think the prospects are as bleak as everyone likes to believe," the senator said.
For Clinton, the political calculus is simple. Long before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in January, the president had zeroed in on "saving" the Social Security system as the cause he hoped to make his legacy.
Clinton needs a victory on that front even more now, to offset the stain of being the first elected president ever to be impeached.
And if success requires Clinton to work side by side with his political enemies, no problem. The president is an acknowledged master at turning the other cheek.
At a White House conference on Social Security reform this month, one of the participants said he was stunned at the degree to which both Clinton and the Republican lawmakers who were present seemed to put the issue totally aside and deal with one another graciously.
"I think the Republicans involved fully expect that Bill Clinton will not be removed from office, and they are looking for his leadership on this issue," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which is associated with liberal causes.
He puts the odds of winning Social Security legislation during the coming term at 50 percent.
Such predictions of a productive 106th Congress are rare and, to some, seem wildly optimistic. Almost nothing but impeachment was achieved on Capitol Hill this year. Congress only barely managed to complete its one essential job: providing money for the government to operate. And that was done slapdash, at the last minute.
Obstacles to progress look even higher for the next two years.
The slim Republican majority in the House with which Republican leaders struggled to govern in the last Congress shrank further in the election, to a scant six votes. Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the newly designated House speaker, cannot afford to alienate any of those Republicans in a bid to win support from Democrats.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats retain the power to stop any bill they oppose -- assuming that an impeachment trial hasn't blocked such legislation first.
What's more, the last Congress of a president's second term is usually unproductive, because the focus tends to shift quickly from the lame-duck president to the would-be successors competing for his job.
Moreover, this lame duck has been formally charged with lying by lawmakers who would be called upon to trust him now -- and he them -- in negotiations over the most popular and politically sensitive government program in the country: Social Security.
Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, did not even trust that Clinton was acting in good faith when the president ordered the missile attack on Iraq on the eve of the House impeachment vote.
"Obviously, it's going to be very difficult to accomplish anything in this environment," said Marshall Wittmann, a congressional analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"I do think there will be strong pressure brought by some Republicans to have some other notches on their belt," Wittmann added, "but Clinton is constrained because he is beholden to the Democratic left that has been most loyal to him in the impeachment fight."
Among the goals more modest than Social Security reform that are given some chance of enactment next term is legislation to curb health maintenance organizations, which both parties offered versions of last year.
The most generous boost for the Pentagon since the Reagan administration helped spend the Soviet Union into oblivion is also in the works for this year, thanks to support from the administration as well as the Republican leadership. But a divisive dispute looms over how to pay for the military increase.
In addition, Democrats and Republicans could potentially settle their differences over how to improve education for the nation's public schoolchildren. The federal cigarette tax could be raised as a source of revenue for new domestic spending or new tax cuts. Election year pressure in 2000 could produce the votes to raise the minimum wage -- just as it did in 1996.
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the House Democratic leader, confessed to conflicting instincts about what will happen in the term ahead.
Given the federal budget surplus, "I'm a little more optimistic than I have been," Gephardt said about the prospect of major progress on Social Security legislation. The surplus, achieved this fall for the first time in decades, comes from money collected through the payroll tax to pay for Social Security.
That tax, last raised in 1983, was intended to make sure there would be enough money to provide retirement benefits for the baby boom generation. At the moment, more money is being paid into Social Security than is being paid out in benefits.
There is apt to be growing pressure, Gephardt said, to make sure the baby boomers are taken care of soon -- by shoring up the Social Security trust fund through private investment or some other means -- so the budget surplus could be spent on other priorities, such as a major tax cut.
But the Democratic leader couldn't bring himself to predict a rosy scenario for any legislation next term.
"I'm from Missouri," Gephardt observed. "I'll believe when I see it."
Pub Date: 12/27/98