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Clinton and Congress

IF task "A" for President-elect Clinton is to build a strong Cabinet and White House staff, providing a sturdy bridge to Capitol Hill is task "A-1."

Astute politician that he is, Mr. Clinton has already indicated that, although his sights are zeroed-in on broad goals, there is enough flexibility for fine-tuning as he establishes his relationship with Congress.

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Bill Clinton seems to enjoy politics; he is resilient, as demonstrated by his hardheaded, successful response to setbacks in the primaries that could have been politically disastrous.

One of the toughest tests of leadership is the ability to keep mistakes to a minimum and to have the resourcefulness to reverse those that occur. Clinton displayed that ability in the campaign.

As president, however, he will find a lot less leeway for mistakes. Some critics say he has already made a couple: Did he weaken his position by revealing a willingness to compromise in his meeting with the congressional leaders of his own party?

Has he already, as some have charged, missed the chance to win the line-item budget veto - cherished in vain by the present White House occupant?

Did he become involved too soon in the controversy over the right of homosexuals to serve in the military?

He may have already lost leverage in dealing with House and Senate leaders of his own party by evidencing a willingness to at least consider compromise on the line-item veto. If so, does that undermine his ability to reach accommodation with the Republican opposition on some key issues?

It is too early to judge, but the experiences of the last four years might incline many Americans to look with favor and hope at the prospect of compromise rather than gridlock.

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It is evident - and to be expected - that the new president will run into obstacles on both sides of the House and Senate aisles.

With the Senate closely divided between Democrats and Republicans, Clinton is likely to find himself engaged in some inter-party horse trading.

Congress has always been a volatile body in which Democrats do not always behave like traditional Democrats, and Republicans do not always behave like traditional Republicans.

Clinton comes to the office of president with some strong assets: As a three-term governor with a high, and apparently favorable, profile among his peers, he should have good insights into the national political landscape and the needs and moods of both the United States political elite and the electorate.

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