Party rancour mars Clinton's big day

Reprimand for Gingrich and differences over budget sour atmosphere, writes Rupert Cornwell

Washington - As ceremonial Washington prepared for today's 53rd presidential inauguration, Republicans closed ranks around their tarnished Speaker, while the Democratic occupant of the White House was applying the final touches to a speech he hopes will help cement his place in history.

In a newspaper interview yesterday, President Bill Clinton said he was aiming at an inaugural address that would "help flush the poison from the atmosphere" of January 1997 in a capital riven by rancorous partisan feuding, at a rare moment in the four-year political cycle here when truce normally, if briefly, prevails.

In his search for uplift and inspiration, Mr Clinton is expected to use this year's coincidence of the Inauguration and the Martin Luther King holiday to plead for racial reconciliation as a crucial plank of the "Bridge to the 21st century" that was the slogan of his victorious campaign last autumn. Indeed, a symbolic wooden bridge is one of the more curious inaugural attractions on the mall, below the Capitol steps where Chief Justice William Rehnquist will administer Mr Clinton the 35-word Oath of Office at noon today.

Last night the First Couple attended a traditional inauguration eve gala featuring Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and other entertainers; but the truly gruelling part comes tonight when they will attend each of the 14 inaugural balls before a scheduled return to the White House at 4.15am tomorrow.

But celebration and comity will not last long at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Yesterday Congress was still coming to terms with the House Ethics Committee's severe castigation of Newt Gingrich, the Speaker, for transgressions for which he will be fined $300,000 (pounds 181,000) and receive a formal reprimand. In the short term, Mr Gingrich seems set to survive. But the episode has seriously diminished his authority.

However Mr Clinton is unlikely to escape the fall-out from the Gingrich affair. As his outgoing Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta, acknowledged yesterday, the party warfare on Capitol Hill can only dim the prospects for agreements on balancing the budget and trimming entitlement programmes such as Medicare, both of which are important goals of the second Clinton term.

Nor does the looming row over a constitutional amendment to balance the budget bode well. In his interview with the Washington Post, Mr Clinton vowed to fight the measure, but Trent Lott, the Republican Senate Majority leader, insisted that it would be the first priority of the new Congress.

Thus the subdued mood here. In part the absence of excitement reflected a combination of bitterly cold weather and the fact that it is a second, not a first, term which is being celebrated - "a wedding anniversary rather than a wedding," as one commentator put it. Even so, the American public seems ready to embark on a second honeymoon with Bill Clinton. Polls yesterday put his approval rating at around 60 per cent, which is higher than at any time since the start of his presidency.

Clinton II, page 15

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