As members of Congress return to Washington Tuesday to ponder the future of President Clinton, few will be as closely watched as a small group of Democrats whose support is considered essential - and whose defections could prove disastrous.
While other lawmakers certainly can influence the course of events, it is this handful of Clinton loyalists who serve as bellwethers of the president’s political base within his own party.
In the Senate, the roster includes Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, centrist Democrat John Breaux of Louisiana and liberals Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. On the House side, Clinton requires the continued support of a small band of “New Democrats.”
If that cadre of Democratic allies begins to turn on Clinton, the end will surely be near, fellow Democrats say. That’s what happened in 1974 when Republican leaders in Congress went to the White House to tell Richard Nixon that GOP support for him had cratered.
It may never come to that, and it surely has not come to that yet. Democrats are still hunkering down in a wait-and-see crouch in the face of charges that Clinton had a sexual affair with a White House intern and then lied about it.
But over the next few days and weeks, these are the people to watch. Few developments in the political arena could be more dangerous to Clinton than a determination by his political allies and loyalists that his troubles are hurting the party or making it impossible for him to govern.
“The question here is, once this is over, can he be effective as president?” asked Clinton ally Tony Coelho, a former House member from California who resigned from Congress after he was hit with a barrage of allegations of financial improprieties. Although Coelho said he does not think Clinton is already hobbled, “I want to see what happens over the next week.”
The support of Clinton’s congressional loyalists is particularly important because his relationship with House and Senate Democrats has long been deeply strained. Clinton has frequently put himself at odds with the liberal wing of his party, which dominates the House Democratic caucus, by pushing for a balanced budget, welfare reform and free-trade policies.
Increasing the tension, House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri is a potential rival to Vice President Al Gore for their party’s presidential nomination in 2000.
“This is a problem,” said one Clintonite. “Clinton is not well-liked among Democrats in Congress.”
In this crunch period, some of his supporters have come through with private words of encouragement. Kennedy, who has sailed and socialized with Clinton during summer vacations in Martha’s Vineyard, called Clinton last Thursday night to “buck him up,” according to a source familiar with the conversation.
“He told him to hang in there, and that we’ve got to keep our eye on moving forward with the agenda and not to be too sidetracked by all this,” the source said.
That’s the kind of message the party apparatus is sending out to the rank-and-file.