Clinton battles to put presidency back on course

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PRESIDENT Bill Clinton set out yesterday to rescue not only his badly battered health care reform and crime bills but a presidency walking the very edge of comprehensive failure.

With a Gaitskellian vow to 'fight and fight and fight' to save his legislative programme, he tore up his planned schedule and flew to a national police association meeting in Minneapolis to make his case anew.

His priority is the crime bill, which the House of Representatives, in a stunning demonstration of Mr Clinton's weakness on Capitol Hill, in effect shelved with Thursday's procedural vote in which 58 Democrats voted against him.

As he left the White House, he said six years of dithering over measures to control guns and put more police on the streets were more than enough. Congress had 'an obligation to the American people that goes way beyond politics and way beyond party'. In a show of the bipartisanship so conspicuously missing the day before, he took with him city mayors including the Republican Rudolf Giuliani of New York and Democrat Ed Rendell of Philadelphia.

Later, visibly angry and with his voice hoarse and cracking, the President promised his cheering police audience: 'We're going to give you a crime bill.'

As he spoke, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill were frantically studying ways of reviving the measure. One option was to make the ban on 19 assault weapons so skilfully exploited by the gun lobby into a separate measure. Another was to remove some of the bill's social policy embellishments. But no date has been fixed for a new vote.

Even more uncertain are the prospects for health care legislation, where Mr Clinton is insisting on preliminary votes in both chambers before the summer recess. Now the minimalist Senate version backed by Mr Clinton is in trouble, amid threats of a Republican filibuster and continuing resistance by moderate and conservative Democrats. Even before the crime bill setback, prospects for the more ambitious Democratic version in the House were bleaker.

But that timetable became even more precarious yesterday as an unnerved House leadership put off 'indefinitely' examination of health care reform. If the Senate continues to stall, the House vote on health care could slip until September, making it virtually impossible for a combined final bill to be approved before Congress breaks for the mid-term election


The defeat on the crime bill was but the latest jarring blow to a reeling White House. Last week's surprise nomination of a new Whitewater prosecutor ensures additional months of scrutiny of that embarrassing affair. The Paula Jones sexual harassment case remains open, while the unwholesome 'Arkansas connection' has been reopened with an independent inquiry into the Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy's dealings with the state's biggest poultry producer, often linked to the Clintons.

Simultaneously, the President has been under fire for his handling of the Haiti crisis, and could be facing an even trickier one in neighbouring Cuba. The impending staff shake-up promised by the new Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, is further distracting his aides. All the while, Mr Clinton's approval ratings have fallen to their lowest levels since he took office.

The President had pinned his own and his party's hopes of recovery on his legislative record, capped ideally by crime and health care bills in the current session. But both now could be beyond reach - not because of Republican opposition, but because of his failure to hold Democrats in line.

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