Is Bentsen Climbing Back To The Top Of The Heap?

Why is Lloyd M. Bentsen smiling? It wasn't a great year for the Treasury Secretary. His department was submerged in the Whitewater scandal, which forced out two top aides. Treasury was widely blamed for President Clinton's incoherent dollar policy, and its plan to streamline federal banking supervision was torpedoed by the Federal Reserve. Worse, Washington gossip--some from the White House--dismissed the Administration's 73-year-old eminence grise as out of gas, out of the policy loop, and soon to be out of work.

So much for conventional wisdom. Bentsen is not only secure in his job, but he and new White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta--another Capitol Hill veteran--are emerging as the dominant players in shaping the President's agenda and selling it to Congress. Their centrist views, pragmatism, and skill in forging bipartisan compromise will be even more important for Clinton next year when he is sure to face a more heavily Republican legislature.

Clinton now realizes that he desperately needs the kind of insider's knowledge that a 40-year veteran of Washington provides. After the battering he took on his legislative priorities earlier this year, Clinton is leaning on the wily Bentsen to get his top causes--the crime bill, health-care reform, and a new General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade--through Congress. The Treasury chief is working his old congressional friends, and he's providing the President with blunt counsel on how to cut deals in Washington. Bentsen, Clinton admitted recently, "talks in such a frank way to his President when I need to be frankly spoken to."

The best example: health care. Last year, Bentsen tried to persuade Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton to scale down their ambitious plan, but they ignored his advice. Now, with Congress spurning the White House plan, Bentsen is trying to salvage more modest reform--one that's closer to a plan he proposed in 1992 as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Whitewater shows just how much clout Bentsen still has on the Hill. Deputy Secretary Roger C. Altman and General Counsel Jean E. Hanson quit after being hammered at congressional hearings for contacting the White House about a criminal probe of a failed Arkansas thrift linked to Clinton. But Bentsen was treated with kid gloves. "He has a reputation for integrity, so you believe him," explains former Senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.). Adds a Bentsen aide: "It helps having been a member of the club."

SWIFT MOVE. Not only did he dodge a bullet, but the savvy Bentsen turned the Whitewater mess to his advantage. From his first days on the job, Bentsen was frustrated that some top aides were thrust upon him by White House political operatives. Minutes after Altman and Hanson announced their departures, Bentsen put out the word that he would fill the slots with his own people: Under Secretary Frank N. Newman would replace Altman, and longtime Bentsen aide Edward S. Knight would replace Hanson. Administration aides say it was extraordinary for a Cabinet officer to preempt the White House on naming Presidential appointees. "Only Lloyd could get away with that," says one Presidential adviser.

Bentsen's lightning move did more than let the White House know who's in charge of Treasury. Aides say it's also his way of refurbishing the department's tarnished image. Bentsen himself says he's not looking back: "I'm not interested in putting anything behind me. I'm too busy getting on with the work of Treasury," he says. And although friends say he was uptight before the Whitewater hearings, Bentsen's mood couldn't be better these days. "With the economy performing so strongly," he says, "this job's a lot of fun." Given his newly regained clout, it's no wonder.