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White House offers cover to Demos who support gun control

WASHINGTON -- The White House is promising political life support to Democratic lawmakers who risk their seats to vote for gun control.

"We'll go out and do anything we can to help people who vote the right way," White House chief of staff John Podesta said Tuesday.Podesta made the remarks in an interview with The Associated Press as his boss was returning from a weeklong European trip prepared to refocus on domestic policies such as gun control, race relations and prescription drug coverage for the elderly.

On gun control, some Democrats, particularly those from rural and Southern districts, fear that a vote against the National Rifle Association will unleash massive advertising and organizing campaigns to defeat them in the next election. Democrats believe gun control was a factor that helped Republicans take control of the House in 1994.

Podesta said Clinton would use his office to explain the Democrats' case on gun control and will help raise money to ensure that party lawmakers can defend their votes in the 2000 elections.

"It will be a politically sustainable vote," he said. "I don't think it's a vote that will cost anybody their seat."

Podesta suggested that George W. Bush, the Republican presidential front-runner, will pay a political price for being endorsed by a majority of GOP House members. Congress' handling of gun control and the federal budget will be particularly troublesome for the Texas governor, he predicted.

"I think there are burdens that come with aligning himself with (House Majority Whip Tom) DeLay and others in the Republican Party," Podesta said.

Gun control legislation backed by Clinton was defeated in the House last Friday, leaving the fate of the issue uncertain. The rejection came as many Democrats rebelled against NRA-backed provisions in the bill to loosen some existing gun controls while dozens of conservative Republicans objected to the imposition of new ones.

The Senate passed its own gun control bill after the horrific shootings at a Colorado high school. Despite the defeat of the House bill, negotiations between the two houses are expected this summer on the issue.

Jill Schroeder, spokeswoman for the GOP House campaign committee, said Clinton can't save Democrats from a vote against guns.

"These people now have records," she said. "They voted against enforcement issues. They voted against cultural issues and they voted against juvenile justice issues. In rural areas, these are important things."

Laura Nichols, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, said her boss told Democrats that the gun control measures were good policy and safe politics. Clinton can help by explaining the case to voters, she said.

"I believe the president has more credibility on this issue than the NRA," Nichols said.

In other news, Podesta said he expects the president to campaign for his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and help her raise money if she decides to seek a New York Senate seat in 2000.