As the nation's chief executive and Senate majority leader prepare to face off for the presidency, Democrats and Republicans warned Sunday of the possibility of a congressional session aimed more at scoring political points than resolving major issues.
The contest between President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, shifts now to the congressional arena as the primary election campaign wraps up and the national political conventions remain months away.
In televised interviews, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and Democratic congressional leaders questioned whether Dole, in returning to Washington to manage his party's agenda in the Senate, will genuinely seek bipartisan agreements on the major issues pending before this session of Congress or will instead pursue hard-line positions designed to preserve good campaign fodder for the race.
"If he's serious about getting things done, then he's got to make a choice whether he's going to moderate his positions or continue to embrace extreme positions," Panetta said on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation."
But GOP leaders said they and Dole will give Clinton abundant chances to do serious legislative business this spring--if he is truly willing to work with them. If he holds firm and just issues vetoes, they said, the continuing government gridlock will be his own fault, and his own political problem.
In Congress, said Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), Dole will be "trying to be Senate majority leader and getting all this legislation that Clinton has vetoed time and time again back on the president's desk. . . ."
Republicans are "anxious to start comparing and contrasting everything that Bob Dole stands for and has worked for, versus everything that Bill Clinton has gotten in the way of," Molinari said on the CBS program.
The talk-show comments illustrate the extent to which this Congress will be entwined with the presidential campaign and the two leaders' political positions. With the two candidates serving as front-line leaders of their parties' legislative agendas, many political analysts believe that achieving agreements, even where there is common ground, could be much more difficult. Each deal could be perceived either as a political trophy or a damaging concession.
Although Clinton and congressional Republicans have recently reached a stalemate over a number of bills, including an antiterrorism measure and product-liability legislation that Clinton has threatened to veto, Republican leaders say they still have a long list of major initiatives that they intend to pass in the next few months.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said his priorities include passing a balanced budget and completing work on plans to reform welfare, Medicare and Medicaid. He said he is confident bills on these issues could be sent to the president for his signature.
"We intend to pass good law for the American people, and if he [Clinton] doesn't sign them, he'll have to deal with that when he deals with the American people out on the campaign trail," he said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."
But Democrats question whether the legislation, particularly for welfare reform, would be written so that Clinton could accept it or would be deliberately crafted to provoke a veto. The president has already vetoed one GOP welfare reform plan and a second rejection could provide a potent issue on the campaign trail.
Another major issue to be resolved is the budget, and Armey said he believes Congress and the White House will avert another shutdown of the government as they try to work out a compromise on the 1996 spending plan.
Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) chastised Clinton for threatening to veto a bill to fund the government to Sept. 30, because it includes $166 billion for education programs, rather than the $169 billion he seeks.
"What kind of cooperation is that from the president of the United States? He is not the only branch of government. We are co-equal," he said on "Meet the Press."
Also appearing on the NBC program, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said their priorities will be a balanced-budget plan, a higher minimum wage and a plan for workers to keep health insurance when they change jobs.