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Eddies of Whitewater Threaten To Drag Down Clinton's Agenda

Momentum stalls on major legislative packages as the president appears vulnerable

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WHAT happens in Washington is sometimes less important than what is abuzz in Washington:

* At the end of last week, the House passed the $1.5 trillion budget President Clinton had proposed in January with only minor changes.

(Psst. Whitewater...)

* This week a congressional subcommittee will begin taking the first actual votes on comprehensive health-care reform.

(Whitewater...)

* The president is hosting a summit in Detroit this week with fellow leaders of industrialized democracies on jobs.

(Whitewater....)

The wheels of government continue to turn, but the hunger for information about the Arkansas real estate deal that the Clintons entered 16 years ago has become so consuming a distraction that some Washington players foresee it changing the legislative dynamics this year. (GOP lawmakers turn up the heat, Page 9.)

``It's a complete distraction,'' says veteran Democratic consultant Ted Van Dyk. ``Even if they do everything right from now on, the legislative agenda is much more limited.''

Most Washington hands agree that the drive for major health-care legislation already has a self-sustaining momentum on Capitol Hill, regardless of Whitewater. But in as much as the Clintons lose their focus and credibility over Whitewater, they become less central and less potent players in shaping health-care legislation.

``The president will lose some of his leverage, and Mrs. Clinton will certainly lose some of hers,'' says Michael Andrews, a lobbyist for Salomon Brothers financial company. ``It will certainly give Congress more leeway on health care.''

In January, when Mr. Clinton gave his State of the Union address, ``there seemed to be the possibility of a legislative hat trick for the president,'' says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute and a prominent activist among centrist Democrats.

Major overhauls of the health-care system and the welfare system as well as a sweeping crime bill appeared within reach.

Momentum has stalled since then, Mr. Marshall says, ``due to the underwhelming response to [Clinton's proposal on] health care, and Whitewater.''

The initiative that is most likely to fall from the agenda altogether this year is welfare reform, a priority for centrist Democrats such as Marshall eager for Clinton to show his New Democrat stripes by demanding more progress toward work from welfare recipients.

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