Where Is Clinton Headed? Watch His Choice For Staff Chief

The balanced-budget bill signed into law by Bill Clinton on Aug. 5 may win the President a place in history. For Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles, it's a ticket home to North Carolina. A venture capitalist who's never warmed to capital risk-taking, Bowles vowed to stay on the job just long enough to tame the deficit.

Now, with Bowles widely expected to depart before year's end, White House colleagues and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are speculating about a replacement. The favorites: Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, Office of Management & Budget Director Franklin D. Raines, National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger, Deputy Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, and chief congressional lobbyist John L. Hilley.

In choosing a new staff chief, the President will be sending an important signal about his plans for the next three years. Will he seek a Bowles clone who can work with a GOP Congress to cut deals? Does he want a visionary who can mold a Clinton legacy? Will he shift gears--like most second-term Presidents--from domestic to foreign policy? Or will he play it safe with a supermanager who keeps Clinton on schedule and minimizes scandal fallout?

NEW FOCUS? Although the job is high-profile, filling it may require a Clinton charm offensive like the one that lured Bowles. Rubin rebuffed a Clinton feeler about taking the post in 1996 but still tops the President's list. The former Wall Street exec is one of Clinton's closest advisers and "he knows the White House staff better than anybody else," says one insider. Some Clintonites think Rubin might be persuaded to take the job if he's allowed to focus on trade and other international economic initiatives. But Rubin's selection wouldn't augur well for compromise with Congress on issues such as tax reform. Republicans, who admire Bowles as a fiscal conservative they can trust, grouse that the Treasury chief is too partisan.

The GOP would be much happier if Clinton tapped Raines. Hill leaders credit him for playing a major role in crafting the budget deal. And White House colleagues say the former Fannie Mae vice-chairman is a strong manager skilled at forging compromises. As staff chief, Raines, an advocate of entitlement reform, would be expected to make overhauling Medicare and Social Security a top priority. For now, though, Raines insists he doesn't want the job.

If Rubin and Raines are true to their word, Clinton may turn to National Security Adviser Berger, a longtime friend and adviser. With Berger at his side, Clinton would spend more time on the international stage pressing for Mideast breakthroughs and maybe a rapprochement with Iran. Bowles's deputy, Podesta, is an organizational whiz and veteran troubleshooter in charge of Whitewater and Donorgate damage control. His elevation would mean that Clinton is opting to stay the course while mounting an aggressive counterattack against ethics allegations. Hilley, a former Hill staffer respected on both sides of the aisle, could help the President forge legislative compromises. "Clinton needs somebody who can wire him with Congress," says former adviser Dick Morris. "Hilley is trusted."

If the President looks outside the Administration, one candidate is former White House counsel Jack Quinn, once chief of staff to Vice-President Al Gore, who will be playing a more prominent role in the White House as 2000 approaches. Hill Democrats are pushing California Representative Vic Fazio, a partisan warrior like Bowles's predecessor, Leon E. Panetta.

Bowles ended the warfare and forged bipartisan trust in Washington. Now, Clinton has to decide whether to build on that legacy or return to the days of political confrontation.

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