Six months ahead of the elections _ and with plenty of business to finish in the interim _ President Clinton's spokesman suggested the White House could not work with House Speaker Newt Gingrich until "he comes back to his senses."
An unflinching Gingrich said the nation is in the midst of a "fairly large and growing scandal." He strongly suggested that funding for the International Monetary Fund would hinge on administration cooperation with a House investigation of Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign fund-raising.
"If the Clinton administration does not turn over documents and information, if they don't make witnesses available, they're not in a very strong position to demand that we give them any money for anything," he said in a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
For the third straight day, Gingrich was making good on a pledge to use his every speech to lambaste the White House for what he called undermining the constitution by stonewalling investigations.
"This is about law breaking," Gingrich, R-Ga., told reporters earlier on Wednesday. "This is not about sex. . . . This is not about soap operas."
Gingrich said he had spoken with former GOP Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee and would invite him to next week's meeting of the party rank and file to speak about the Senate's 1973 Watergate hearings. "I thought we ought to get his advice," Gingrich said.
Clinton aides and Democratic Party officials seemed to welcome Gingrich's public refrain, counting on what they called its partisan edge to turn off voters heading into November's congressional elections.
"My guess is the American people will say, "Knock it off' at some point," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said. A Democratic National Committee press release heralded the return of "Nasty Newt."
"We're going to have to do business with him sooner or later," McCurry said Wednesday morning. "And as soon as he comes back to his senses, we'll do business. He's the one that indicates that he's going to go off on this tirade. So we'll let him go."
By midday, as Clinton sat down to talk legislation with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., McCurry moderated his tone: "We'll work with him to the degree he's willing to work with us."
Gingrich spokeswoman Christina Martin fired back, "Only the Clinton White House would launch a partisan attack because they were asked to tell the truth. Do they really want to be the party of cover-up and corruption?"
The exchanges represented an escalation of election-year clashes between the administration and Republican leaders over tobacco legislation, child care, abortion restrictions and education.
Between now and a fall adjournment, Congress must finish work on a fiscal 1999 budget, 13 appropriations bills and emergency spending for disaster aid and overseas U.S. troops.
Lott, emerging from his White House meeting, expressed frustration that with a loaded legislative docket, "somebody's got to talk about those issues."