WASHINGTON--For the last two months, the presidential candidates in both parties have had the political stage to themselves. Congress has been in recess, its members scattered to their homes. The Supreme Court has been hearing arguments but announcing few decisions. And President Clinton, preoccupied with foreign affairs, has made few domestic policy moves.
But now, with the first tests for the presidential field in Iowa and New Hampshire just days away, all three branches of the federal government are shifting into high gear. From this point onward, a complex and intriguing set of overlapping forces will be in play--with developments on the campaign front affecting decisions in Washington and government actions posing new tests for the presidential contenders.
Consider, for example, last week's announcement by the Supreme Court that it will hear arguments this spring on cases testing the validity of banning partial-birth abortions and requiring the Boy Scouts to accept homosexuals as troop leaders. Decisions in both cases are expected by June. That will be too late to affect the primaries, but whatever the justices decide, the issues will be teed up for debate in the general election.
Already, the Democratic and Republican fields are headed off in opposite directions on these two emotionally explosive social issues. The six Republican contenders have been unanimous in criticizing Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley for saying they would insist that the armed services accept openly gay men and women into their ranks. You can imagine their denunciations if the high court were to uphold the New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling that the Boy Scouts may not bar homosexuals from leading groups of preteens.
A similar partisan split is evident on the abortion issue. Gore and Bradley oppose restrictions; all the Republicans have pledged to sign legislation to outlaw partial-birth abortions--those that take place in late-term when the fetus is well-formed. President Clinton has vetoed federal legislation banning such abortions. Gore and Bradley agree with his stand; the Republican candidates strongly dissent.
Whichever way the court rules on the Nebraska law banning these abortions, you can expect a political explosion. If the law is upheld, abortion-rights supporters will protest; if it is overturned, the right-to-life community will be enraged. Either way, it will put the spotlight on the issue of judicial appointments the next president will make.
It is not just the Supreme Court that will shape the political agenda. In the past week, as he has begun laying out parts of his agenda for the final year of his presidency, Clinton has reminded people that, lame-duck or not, a president still is unrivaled at focusing attention on the issues he chooses.
Clinton's State of the Union address on Jan. 27, three nights after the Iowa caucuses and five days before the New Hampshire primary, will include many items that Democrats love--and that Republicans will find difficult to oppose. Among them: a higher minimum wage, a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor; expanded medical and drug benefits; more spending on schools.
Already, you can see how the messages the candidates are hearing on the campaign trail are shifting attitudes in Washington. In Iowa and New Hampshire, the six Republicans are being asked what they would do about managed care companies. Some HMOs have collapsed with financial problems; some have pulled out of markets; others have enraged some customers by denying them services. In a Washington Post survey last fall, Democratic, Republican and Independent voters all named a guarantee of patients' rights in managed care as their No. 1 issue.
Now that is being confirmed in the Iowa and New Hampshire town meetings, and Republican congressional leaders--who first tried to stall that legislation in 1999 and then refused to call a conference committee to reconcile the very different bills passed by the House and Senate--are saying they will place a bill on Clinton's desk by spring.
Another hot issue in the town halls--the cost of prescription drugs--has reached the Washington power-brokers. The pharmaceutical industry has come around to conversing with the administration about steps, short of price controls, that might alleviate the problem. Rep. Tom Davis, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told The Washington Post his party would be ''naive not to'' address the issue in this session of Congress.
In 1996, the dynamics of the campaign trail caused Clinton to sign a Republican-written welfare reform bill and Republicans to pass Democratic measures on the minimum wage and expanded health insurance portability, while agreements on taxes, the budget and other issues were stymied.
This year, the dynamics of the campaign will have equally dramatic effects.
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