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Sex scandal is having little effect on day-to-day life on Capitol Hill

A long line of television cameras stands in the mud on the White House lawn. A crush of reporters holds vigil at the federal courthouse.

Yet, after nearly a month of screaming headlines, lurid allegations and dire predictions of a constitutional crisis spawned by the Monica Lewinsky story, life at the epicenter of political intrigue goes on pretty much unchanged.Republicans are focused on tax reform and education. Democrats are lobbying to increase the minimum wage and preserve Social Security. Both sides are positioning themselves for the November election.

"We have gone on essentially as we would have," said Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "Most of us have put that issue aside. We know it will be resolved in another venue, and we go on with our jobs."

The same way that television's focus on fires in the Marina district after the 1989 earthquake gave the world the impression that all of San Francisco was burning, the abundance of stories on the Lewinsky episode has fueled the false perception that Washington has been turned upside down.

In reality, the government has chugged along uninterrupted, like the rest of the country.

"We read the paper and watch the news," Fazio said. "But I think we have simply decided that it is not where the public is right now. It's not as important to them as the matters of state that we are working on."

Issue No. 1 on Capitol Hill these days is not sex but how to handle the anticipated budget surplus. Lawmakers are divided between those who want to use it for tax cuts, those who want to spend it on new programs and those who want to apply it toward the nation's $5 trillion debt.

Such policy discussions seemed out of place in the first days after the Lewinsky story broke, when it was suggested by some that Clinton cancel his State of the Union address. Pundits predicted that Clinton would, at best, be hopelessly crippled.

But with Congress back in session, the State of the Union speech a resounding success and the threat of war with Iraq looming, Clinton's troubles have taken a back seat inside the beltway for almost everyone but the media.

When the president went to Capitol Hill on Thursday to address members of Congress, the only hint of scandal was the presence of ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, who arrived 60 minutes early to stake out a good spot from which to shout questions.

He never had the chance, as Democrats gave Clinton a thunderous 90-second ovation as he entered the room, and an equally enthusiastic response after he finished addressing the Democrats' 1998 agenda.

"This is truly a unified Democratic Party that stands before America today," bellowed House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., who led the opposition last year to Clinton's trade initiatives and scolded the White House for abandoning traditional Democratic values, but is now rallying behind the president.

The Democratic pep rally had been scheduled before the president's current difficulties, but it evolved into a high-profile show of support from lawmakers, many of whom have privately expressed less than full confidence that Clinton has been telling the truth.

"Democrats are busy at work," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who sat on the stage with Clinton and insisted allegations that Clinton had an affair with a 21-year-old White House intern had "absolutely, positively" not affected the Democratic agenda.

House Republicans held a retreat this week in Williamsburg, Pa., to discuss strategy, and several participants said the president's troubles were hardly mentioned.

"The subject did not come up," said Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Calif. "Of course people talk privately, but in terms of every public discussion our group had in Williamsburg, the name (Monica Lewinsky) was not brought up."

"It hasn't affected the agenda whatsoever," said Michele Davis, communications director for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

There were reports last week that House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., has talked to Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., about how to proceed with impeachment hearings were the scandal to ever reach that point.

Were impeachment proceedings to begin, several members predicted that everything else on Capitol Hill would come to a standstill.

"That would be an entirely different matter," Campbell said. "Every member of the House would then have to devote a serious amount of time examining the evidence."

Until then, according to one Democratic member, "We can't afford to even think about it. There's a buzz going on, people will talk about it over lunch, but it's really not interfering with the business as usual."