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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Mutually assured destruction

Eight months after impeachment, the defeat of the test ban proves that the air in Washington is still radioactive. And it's likely to get worse

By Richard Lacayo

TIME magazine

October 18, 1999
Web posted at: 12:36 p.m. EDT (1636 GMT)

In the days before the Senate voted, there was never much of a public debate over the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Then suddenly it was defeated in a vote that stunned not only Washington but just about every other capital. And now, just as suddenly, the Beltway is consumed by concepts like nuclear blasts, mutual assured destruction and radioactive fallout. Of course, not much of that talk revolves around the treaty. Those just happen to be the terms you need to describe the mood between Congress and the President, a climate so poisoned by the impeachment fight that as Bill Clinton moves toward his final year in office, he doesn't only have scorched earth behind him. He has it in front of him.

Ten years from now, this will be seen as the epitome of partisanship, says a White House aide. "The rest of the country has already moved on. Washington, as usual, is the last to figure it out." The struggle over impeachment left Republicans furious that Clinton had escaped them. To make matters worse, he keeps escaping them. Two weeks after he vetoed the G.O.P. tax-cut bill last month, Republicans failed to stop the Democratic version of the HMO-reform bill in the House. And coming soon is a proposed minimum-wage hike that most Republicans oppose but probably can't stop.

However, it has been different on foreign-policy issues, on which Clinton can seem as inattentive as most Americans. Even for initiatives as important as the test-ban treaty, which was supposed to consolidate four decades of bipartisan arms-control efforts, Clinton failed to prepare the ground of public opinion. While the Bush Administration prefaced the Gulf War with months of explanations, NATO's bombing campaign against Serbia this year seemed to come out of nowhere. So on foreign policy, Republicans have sensed an opening to humiliate a President they could not topple, even if that means discarding the tattered remains of the bipartisan consensus on foreign affairs. Last year, when Clinton ordered the bombing of Iraq on the eve of his impeachment, Senate majority leader Trent Lott was unafraid to issue a statement questioning the timing of the attack. In April, House Republicans defeated by a tie vote a measure in support of the NATO campaign against Serbia.

So it was no wonder that the Senate's perfunctory debate on the test-ban treaty included a moment in which Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered an imitation of British Prime Minister Tony Blair in conversation with Clinton and signing off with "give Monica my regards." Washington may be the one place in America where people still talk about Lewinsky. It was also no wonder that Clinton was in a genuinely vengeful mood after the vote when he accused Republicans of "reckless partisanship."

Whatever it means for America's status abroad, the bitter collision over the test ban is a bad omen for the future of peaceful co-existence between the President and Congress. Next up is the contest over the budget. Though Congress may finish all 13 appropriations bills by the end of this week, Clinton could veto as many as five of them, beginning a pitched fight that may decide the 2000 election. And don't expect him to position himself as a centrist, the role he played in the balanced-budget agreement two years ago and on welfare reform in 1996.

For the runup to 2000, Democratic leaders like Tom Daschle in the Senate and Dick Gephardt in the House want to pick fights with the Republicans. A lot of Washington believes that Clinton, who owes them for standing by him during impeachment, is now disposed to stand by them in return. In his press conference last week, however, Clinton insisted that there was simply no reasonable leadership figure to deal with anymore on the other side.

Either way, there won't be much braking from the White House when congressional Democrats hit Republicans for starving schools and the environment or for being too beholden to the party's pro-life wing, which likes to add antiabortion riders to spending bills wherever it can. And with Lott disinclined to play dealmaker, Republicans will be trying hard to frame the budget debate to their advantage by claiming that Democratic spending proposals will require draining money from the Social Security trust fund. Vulnerable congressional Democrats like Earl Pomeroy in North Dakota and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan have already been hit in their home districts by Republican TV spots accusing them of just that.

Next, Republicans may try to force votes on specific Clinton spending proposals, leaving Democrats vulnerable to ads stating that they supported, say, money to protect the striped bass over money for retirees. "Whatever tear-jerking program they can come up with, they'll have to justify raiding Social Security," says a G.O.P. Senate leadership aide. "That just won't work."

Something else that may not work is compromise. One of the things that make the system operate is personal contact between the President and congressional leaders, especially those that come from different parties. But Clinton and Lott have had the kind of working relationship that Mike Tyson had with Evander Holyfield. Before Clinton phoned Lott last week to urge him to allow the test-ban treaty to be withdrawn without a vote--a call that Republicans complain came just 90 minutes before the vote was scheduled--the two men had not spoken since July. Lott says that if Clinton had called a week earlier, it could have been withdrawn.

But Lott is in no mood to play nice. He knows that Democrats in Congress set the debacle in motion by pushing all summer for a vote on the treaty, fully expecting that the Republicans would never oblige. When Lott decided to call their bluff, Democrats had no time to turn the sizable but less than urgent public sentiment in favor of the treaty--it ran as high as 80% in some polls --into an irresistible public demand that would force more Republican Senators to vote with the Democrats. In the end just four Republicans defected. Lott also knew that he had to placate his conservative wing, still angry over his willingness two years ago to bring to the Senate floor the treaty banning chemical weapons.

In a final effort, Daschle and Lott agreed that the test-ban treaty could be withdrawn if Democrats promised, as Republicans demanded, not to introduce it again during Clinton's presidency except under "extraordinary circumstances." Republicans, who feel they always lose when they cut a deal with Clinton, wouldn't go for that one. As White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said, "They act as if they're afraid even to get in the same room with us because they'll get taken." In the year to come they won't be taking much. Or giving it.

--Reported by Jay Branegan and John F. Dickerson/Washington


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 25, 1999

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