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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Clinton and Congress: A Bad Marriage

By Karen Tumulty/Washington

Time cover

(TIME, September 28) -- In retrospect, you could say they married too hastily, heedless of how different they really were: one charming and vain; the other fusty and proud. And both of them so needy. Then came the bickering, the betrayal, the recriminations--and the long, frosty silences. Now the question is: Should Bill Clinton and the Democrats in Congress stay together for the sake of the family, or would the party be better off if they went their separate ways?

Clinton's survival hangs on the answer, as House and Senate Democrats ponder how much they are willing to risk to defend a President who has again and again abandoned them when the tables were turned. Consider how their fortunes have differed in the six years since Clinton rode into the capital as a new kind of Democrat: the President triumphed in his deals with Republicans to balance the budget, reform welfare and open trade. Cutting his party loose, he launched his own job-approval ratings to gravity-defying heights. Meanwhile, Democrats lost not only their New Deal traditions but also 52 seats in the House and a dozen in the Senate, rendering them all but irrelevant in the institution over which they once held a lock. And while it is unfair to blame Clinton for all those losses, congressional Democrats legitimately fear that the fallout from his sexual self-indulgence could deal them further damage in this election because it will be felt most in the suburban, centrist districts where their members are most threatened.

There were signs of trouble even before Clinton came to Washington. In his 1992 campaign, he blasted the then Democratic House's "midnight pay raise," and even ran ads about it in New Hampshire. He railed against the 1992 House banking scandal and promised to cut congressional staffs by a quarter. Nor did the Democratic Congress have much experience working as a team with the Chief Executive. When Clinton took office, more than two-thirds of House Democrats and half of Senate Democrats had never served under a President of their party. Clinton aides called the relationship an "impossible embrace."

Still, everyone tried for a while to make the marriage work. With not a single Republican on their side, Democrats risked much by passing Clinton's bold package of tax hikes in 1993. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a freshman elected by a fluke from a G.O.P. district, reluctantly cast the vote that put it over the top in the House. Republicans on the other side of the chamber waved their hankies at her and chanted, "Bye-bye, Margie." (Sure enough, she was gone in the next election, along with many other Democrats who had come to town on Clinton's coattails.) The Senate passed the package by a single vote as well, and the fight was even uglier. His powers of persuasion failing him with his onetime presidential rival Bob Kerrey, Clinton found himself shouting into the telephone at the Nebraska Senator, "F___ you!" He got Kerrey's vote, but Democrats wondered whether it had been worth the price when Clinton nimbly disavowed his tax hikes three years later.

Feelings that had begun to sour over NAFTA in 1993 got worse during the health-care fight of 1994, although the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue disagreed on why. The President blamed the plan's demise on Congress, where five committees tore it apart and then couldn't put it back together; the Democrats thought the public backlash against Clinton's proposal cost them the House and the Senate in 1994. For many, the breach became irreparable with welfare reform in 1996. "If this Administration wishes to go down as one that abandoned, eagerly abandoned, the national commitment to dependent children, so be it," said New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. By 1996, it was every Democrat for himself. Lawmakers complained that President's massive fund-raising operation was running up the score for his re-election, rather than spreading the wealth to them. They turned all the more bitter when the Clinton fund-raising scandal broke only a few weeks before the election, costing them, many believe, their chance of winning back the House.

With his future depending on it, Clinton has been trying hard to mend the relationship. He put forward an election-year agenda that played to Democratic strength, with its emphasis on education, health care and saving Social Security. And now that he never has to run again, Clinton is unstinting in helping other Democrats fill their coffers. Just last week, he pulled in $4 million in a single day of fund raising, which was $1 million more than organizers had expected. But in politics as in marriage, Clinton is learning that money can't buy you love.

--With reporting by John F. Dickerson/Washington

STRAINED BEDFELLOWS

Clinton is depending on the Democrats in Congress to stay alive. But after he campaigned against them, reneged on or cut them out of deals, members of Clinton's party lack the goodwill to help

Dick Gephardt -- The House minority leader has parted ways with Clinton over his trade, budget and welfare-reform policies. He is now looking to run for the presidency again, this time challenging Al Gore for the party's nod in 2000

Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- The New York Senator has been giving Clinton failing grades since the Administration's earliest days, particularly for health-care and welfare reform. He's rumored to be mulling a call for Clinton's resignation

Bob Kerrey -- In 1993, while trying to lobby the Nebraska Senator for a tax hike, Clinton screamed "F__ you!" into the phone. Kerrey later noted that the President was "an unusually good liar. Unusually good." Relations are still chilly

Joseph Lieberman -- When the Connecticut moderate became the first Democrat to speak out against Clinton's lies, the President said he agreed. If Clinton meant it, Lieberman might help him broker a way out of this crisis


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: September 28, 1998

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