Senate Democrats: Clobbering Clinton With The Suggestion Box

The name of the game in the baronial preserve known as the U.S. Senate is "advise and consent." But since Bill Clinton came to town, the senators have been doing a lot of advising and the President most of the consenting. In pursuing their prerogatives, the 56 Democratic senators have made Clinton look weak--hurting his chances of becoming the first successful Democratic President in a generation.

The Senate has deluged the White House with helpful hints, some of which look more like demands. Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a tough critic on military issues, is now offering a plan to restructure the U.S. tax system. Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) wants to force the withdrawal of troops from Somalia. Finance Committee Chairman Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) called the financing of Clinton's health-care plan a "fantasy." Senator David L. Boren (D-Okla.) forced Clinton to rewrite his budget, then voted against it anyway. And Senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) offered advice on building a new economic safety net.

GROVELING. Much of this was inevitable. "The Senate is a collection of very big egos," says political scientist Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "A lot of senators feel they are more qualified to be President than the President." Especially the Democrats. In the Reagan-Bush years, they acted as a shadow government, speaking on economics, foreign policy, and other issues, a role they are loath to surrender. "Nobody said that when we got a Democratic President that Democratic senators would be muzzled," sniffs one majority leadership source. "There are a number of Democrats out there who haven't yet realized [Clinton] is one of ours," adds a senior Senate Democratic staffer.

But Clinton's inept handling of the Senate has made a bad situation worse. Nunn took the President's early move to end discrimination against gays in the military as a personal challenge and forced Clinton to back down. Then, the President showed weakness by trimming proposed increases in grazing fees to win Western support for his budget. Such miscues were compounded by personal slights: Several committee chairmen learned of major Clinton proposals through newspaper leaks rather than White House courtesy calls. "If the President had come in very surefooted, the Senate would have been much more cooperative," contends one Senate staffer. "But things began to fall apart, and everyone began to free-lance."

FLESH WOUNDS. Many of the senators say they only want to help. Bradley's economic-security proposal combines some traditional Democratic ideas. In an Oct. 7 speech in Washington, Bradley called for universal health insurance, pension protection, and lifetime education and retraining. The goal, he says, was "to push the Administration to be a little clearer about their objectives over the next two or three years. I hope they see me as pushing them toward their better impulses."

So far, Clinton has suffered mainly flesh wounds from Senate rebellions. He has won approval for nearly all of his first-year initiatives. But his luck may not hold. Successful Presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, have imposed their will by making senators think twice before exercising their independence. "There's no fear factor," says Republican consultant Eddie Mahe of Clinton and the Senate. "Whenever they have any urge to bang him around, they just do it."

So far, Clinton would rather cajole than confront. He's frequently calling senators to chat and is currying favor with coveted White House social invites. But keeping Democratic barons in line will require stronger stuff. If Clinton is to make his agenda prevail over the ego eruptions of Senate Democrats, he must be prepared to crack some heads on Capitol Hill.

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