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Rep. Dan Rostenkowski sits at the pinnacle of power in critical deficit-reduction talks, and the 18-term Illinois Democrat will keep his position unless he's indicted in the House Post Office scandal.

Rostenkowski assumed his usual command role in House-Senate negotiations Tuesday over a White House proposal aimed at cutting the deficit by $500 billion over five years - the cornerstone of President Clinton's domestic policy.Clinton and several lawmakers said Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, will remain the key House architect in crafting a plan acceptable to both houses.

For his part, Rostenkowski acted like anything other than a hobbled negotiator a day after court papers pointed to him as a possible recipient of embezzled funds from the House Post Office.

He lunched privately with Clinton and the chief Senate negotiator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., at the White House. And he sat in the front row as Clinton addressed Democratic tax and budget negotiators.

A factor that could change Rostenkowski's role would be a felony indictment in the post office scandal because House Democratic Caucus rules require committee chairmen to step aside in such a circumstance.

Asked if the allegations alone would affect Rostenkowski's negotiating role, Clinton said, "No. We've got a lot of work to do. Chairman Rostenkowski's done a great job with this budget so far, and we've worked very closely together. I don't know anything about the rest of it."

Moynihan, responding to a similar question, said, "Not the least bit. His status hasn't changed."

Clinton is seeking passage of the deficit-reduction measure before Congress goes into summer recess in August.

Rostenkowski, a member of Congress since 1959, has been under a cloud since last year in the post office investigation, which the Illinois Democrat has called a political "witch hunt."