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Congress Tries To Get Back To Business Lawmakers Concentrating On Pocketbook Issues, Not Scandals

Republicans and Democrats alike showed less interest Tuesday in the sex allegations swirling around President Clinton than in election-year pocketbook issues such as tax cuts and health care.

“The nation is fixed on this,” Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said, conceding the public interest in the president’s troubles. But, he added, “they really want us to get on with the business” of the country.

On the opening day of the year’s congressional session, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said, “Obviously, we return under very difficult circumstances. … While circumstances may be extraordinary, the work of this government must go on.”

Three pages of “talking points,” distributed by the House leadership to the rank and file for use in news media interviews, dwelt on issues such as the GOP agenda of tax cuts, IRS reform, and education, and made no mention of the president’s political difficulties. “While the president has proposed a program a day for the last few weeks, House and Senate Republicans have been quietly laying the foundation for a successful 1998,” was part of the suggested response to the president’s remarks.

One Democratic aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that the president’s personal difficulties have arisen suddenly and that lawmakers until very recently had been looking forward to pressing ahead with his politically appealing proposals for Medicare, child care and other issues.

For their part, Republicans are eager to keep themselves out of a situation in which the Democrats and the news media debate Clinton’s truthfulness and his fate. They fear that by injecting themselves into the controversy, they would give Clinton an obvious target and also force nervous Democrats to rush to the president’s defense.

Occasionally, though, the controversy surrounding Clinton and a former White House intern surfaced.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., attacked Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr, suggesting his office was conspiring with lawyers for Paula Jones to leak information that was damaging to the president.

Leahy, a former prosecutor who is the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Starr’s probe “the most partisan, ends-justify-the-means investigation I can remember in my life.”

Within hours, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., also a former prosecutor, rose to Starr’s defense.

In general, though, lawmakers were less combative, as they returned to the Capitol.

“I think everybody is trying to give the president the benefit of the doubt, waiting for him to give his side of the story,” said GOP Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, a frequent critic of Clinton’s policies. “If this turns out to be true, he’s going to have a very major problem. If it turns out it’s not true, I think this thing passes quickly, and the president will be vindicated.”

Several Democrats seemed heartened by Clinton’s defiant denial on Monday that he had had sex with the former intern, Monica Lewinsky, or had urged her to lie about it.

House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, interviewed on C-SPAN, said, “I think people are getting fed up with the scandal of the day and all the hearings and all the money that’s being spent on this.

“The president made a very strong statement yesterday. Until there is credible, verifiable evidence to the contrary, I really think he needs to be given the benefit of the doubt.”

Leaders of a group of moderate Democrats emerged from a private meeting eager to discuss the pocketbook issues Clinton has been floating in recent days.

Noting the importance of the State of the Union address, Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., said, “These are going to be the questions that are on people’s minds tonight. What are the answers to many of the education, child care and health care questions.”

Liberal Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., made a similar point. “We’ve got the president of the United States coming before the Congress for the first time since 1969 with a balanced budget, and within that context we are talking about middle-class families, health care, child care.

“Washington and the press are focused on other things,” she said.

xxxx IRS overhaul As the Senate begins work on restructuring the Internal Revenue Service, the agency’s new commissioner is ordering its biggest overhaul in 45 years. The reorganization will focus the IRS on serving taxpayers’ needs, officials said Tuesday. Under the plan, IRS Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti would reorganize the agency into “taxpayer service organizations” devoted to four categories: individual taxpayers; small businesses and the self-employed; large corporations; and pension plans, nonprofits and state and local governments. Rossotti is scheduled to unveil the plan during testimony today before the Senate Finance Committee. The announcement shows the Clinton administration taking the initiative in proposing major changes at the IRS before Senate Republicans begin reworking an IRS overhaul bill that passed the House in November.


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