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Partisan or Bipartisan - Which Will It Be, Mr. Clinton?

In his inaugural address on Jan. 20, President Clinton made a lofty appeal for an end to the "politics of petty bickering and extreme partisanship."

Before the Democratic National Committee the next day, he made some extremely partisan remarks, saying the Republicans have no interest in limiting campaign contributions because they raise more money, more big money, more foreign money. "And we take all the heat. It's a free ride."

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Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, co-sponsor of a campaign-reform bill that Mr. Clinton supports, told him his partisan remarks had not been helpful.

Clinton appears to be operating ambivalently on both a bipartisan and a partisan track. Part of him seems to be the statesman, building his bridge and writing his page in history. Part of him is the "chronic campaigner," as President Johnson once said of Richard Nixon. And like Mr. Nixon, Clinton is full of anger at his foes in politics and at the press, whom he sees as intent on diminishing him and his wife.

That dichotomy is likely to become more pronounced in the coming months, as the president strives for bipartisan agreement on a federal budget, Medicare, Social Security, and a host of other issues, while the congressional Republican leadership mounts investigations into the administration.

And soon we should be hearing from independent counsel Ken Starr, investigating Whitewater and other matters for the past two years.

Clinton may figure that, scandal-wise, Speaker Newt Gingrich has been pretty well neutralized. But the Senate Republicans are getting ready for the fray, starting with a campaign-funding inquiry by Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, who cut his investigative teeth as a Watergate committee lawyer. Senator Thompson has already fired a shot across the bow of the White House by stating that he will challenge any claims of executive privilege intended to deny him "relevant material."

The question is whether partisan strife will be able to coexist with legislative harmony. And the answer is probably not. There may not be any conspiratorial news media food chain, as the White House has claimed, but it is a fact that alleged scandal and malfeasance tend to make bigger headlines than budgetary compromises.

And since the president internalizes the partisan and bipartisan tracks, he will find it difficult to ride them both when they start to diverge.

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* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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