Clinton looking good as Congress wields `meat-axe'

FROM JOHN CARLIN

in Washington

Ladbrokes, whose odds for the 1996 presidential race are sometimes quoted by the American press, have consistently identified President Bill Clinton as the clear favourite, even two months ago when most commentators were saying he was dead in the water.

Ladbrokes, it would seem, are privy to a superior form of wisdom. Mr Clinton's back-room strategists were saying during the dark days that their best hope lay in sitting back and allowing the Republicans and their congressional leader Newt Gingrich enough rope to hang themselves. Which is precisely what the Republicans are now doing and, if not quite throttled yet, they are certainly wriggling.

In January, Republican congressmen were storming the ramparts of the Capitol, driving scurrying Democrats out of the big offices they had inhabited during 40 years of control of the House of Representatives. Today, the Republicans are retreating in disarray. The polls show that the public sees them as increasingly mean-spirited, taking from the poor to give to the rich; and now Republican members of Congress are fighting among themselves and backpedalling on policies, considered, until barely a week ago, to be sacred tenets of their purportedly revolutionary document "Contract with America".

The Republicans have shown commendable spirit in their rush to live up to the promise of passing 10 items of the Contract through the House of Representatives during the first 100 days of the congressional year. But with the welfare bill, introduced on Tuesday, they have gone a bridge too far. Yesterday morning Republican congressmen were conceding, in media interviews, that perhaps it might not be politically judicious to cut off aid to the 2.8 million children of unwed mothers under the age of 18; that plans to reduce federal assistance for 360,000 of the 900,000 disabled children currently on benefit might not play well with the fundamentally decent, middle-class voter in the mid-West.

When debate began on the welfare bill, the Democrats shook off the despond of recent months and, smelling blood, took it in turns indignantly to lash their Republican rivals. One congressman accused them of taking "a meat-axe" to handicapped children; another quoted from the New Testament, suggesting the Republicans were turning Christ's message on its head, not suffer the little children, but make the little children suffer; yet another compared the Republicans to the Nazis.

The Republicans offered little in the way of a response, mainly because they were too busy trying to resolve an in-house rebellion. It emerged on Tuesday that 102 Republican members of the House of Representatives had signed their names to a letter to the leadership asking that a proposed tax credit of $500 (£316) per child be limited to families with incomes of less than $95,000 a year - and not less than $200,000 as contemplated in a bill scheduled for discussion next week.

Mike McCurry, President Clinton's spokesman, noted superiorly in response to the news of the Republicans' (as it were) Capitol Tea Party that this was "the first glimmer of hope of some fiscal sanity" he had detected among the new masters of congress.

Mr McCurry's smug feelings might also extend to Bob Dole, currently the favourite for the Republican presidential nomination. Bad news for the congressional Republicans is bad news for Mr Dole, the Senate majority leader, who came in for an unusually scathing attack from a New York Times editorial this week. Last week, it emerged, Mr Dole wrote to the National Rifle Association promising he would make it a priority to push for the repeal of a law passed by the Democrats last year banning the sale of assault weapons designed for private use.

The New York Times said Mr Dole had been "shamelessly sycophantic" in the letter, and had knowingly gone against the wishes of four out of five Americans with the simple objective of appeasing the Republican Right.

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