LOYAL OPPOSITION: Lost Time

Newt Gingrich is gone. Paula Jones is departing the stage, having agreed to an $850,000 no-apology settlement with the President. And impeachment fever is cooling in some GOP quarters: Republican Sen. Arlen Specter called for giving President Clinton a pass until he's out of office, speaker-apparent Bob Livingston has shown no desire for presicide and the odds are increasing that a handful of Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee may vote with the Democrats to shut down impeachment proceedings. Still-at-it Kenneth Starr, who dumped two more boxes of material on Congress Friday and who once again indicted Clinton chum Webster Hubbell, is scheduled to testify before the committee this week -- excerpts will be available at a 900 number -- and that will give the Monica mavens some crumbs. (One lucky break for Starr: The investigation into leaks from his office shouldn't be completed until the end of the month, permitting him to fend off questions on that front by noting he is not yet free to talk about the matter.) But slowly Washington is returning to non-Monica political realities: The Republicans don't know how to exploit fully their majority in Congress; the Democrats play better with each other when they're on defense. The question for each is, what to do now?Republicans, with their leadership fights and blame games, look like they're in more disarray than they are. The Democrats, with their zombie-like attachment to the mantra "patientbillofrightseducationandsavingSocialSecurity," appear more unified than they are. The GOPers may seem mired in Republican-on-Republican violence, as cranky conservatives call for more allegiance to the true faith and the less-cons hail the "pragmatic" GOP governors and fret about the party's harsh image (thanks to its association with the Christian right and its embrace of anti-affirmative action measures). Still, Republicans generally agree on their basics: tax cuts, less social spending, more military spending and helping corporate America escape the burdens of workplace and environmental health and safety standards. They just have to figure out how to sell all this. If they can avoid being sucked too deep into abortion politics and can soft-peddle their affection for guns, they have a chance to put forward some non-Newt initiatives in the next Congress. Their foremost challenge is devising tax cuts that Democrats cannot label as solely breaks for the rich, thereby accusing the GOP of raiding Social Security to benefit those who worry whether a Land Rover is in or out this year.Livingston, a wheeler-dealer who has chaired the Appropriations Committee, may be the right fellow to concoct a savvy tax-cut strategy for the Republicans. He has vowed to bring to the floor legislation that would remove the Social Security program from the main budget -- a change that would disentangle tax cuts from Social Security. But then he'd have to find some other way of paying for them.For Democrats, the question is: Is there enough there there? Their Patients Bill of Rights is the most modest of health care reform and does not provide insurance to the 41 million who go without. Is it sufficient raison d'etre for the party? And if the GOP markets a p.r.-friendly tax cut, can the Democrats hang tough and play class politics? Certainly, a portion of the party might feel tempted to vote for tax cuts, particularly should any anxiety about the economy arise. As for Social Security, watch out. The President keeps dropping hints he is amenable to some sort of privatization, perhaps testing the notion.The Republicans are eager to get a whack at it. An emboldened Clinton is once again in a better position to strike bad deals with the GOP, for he does need the congressional Democrats as much as he did weeks ago. The intra-party tensions on Social Security have yet to emerge. Last week, Rep. Dick Gephardt was all happy-faced about the prospects of pulling together a Democratic consensus position on the program. That's because they hadn't started to try.Come the new Congress, it's possible that Washington politics will be Monica-free. It'll be back to the future: January 1997, BM: The President will be looking for initiatives he can portray as grander than they are; the Democrats will be worrying about his loyalty to their needs and desires; the Republicans will be wondering how much of their agenda they can advance without sparking an anti-GOP backlash. It's almost as if Monica's mother's boyfriend (a Democratic donor) never used his pull to get that young woman an internship at the White House. Except, of course, for Gingrich.

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