Even in Rome, Bush is hounded by domestic woes

November 09, 1991|By Andrew Rosenthal | Andrew Rosenthal,New York Times News Service

ROME -- President Bush paused yesterday between a summit session of the Atlantic alliance and economic talks in the Netherlands to renew his increasingly defensive battle with Congress.

He charged that if it had been left up to the Democrats, the United States would be sitting "fat, dumb and happy with Saddam Hussein maybe in Saudi Arabia."

The president firmly turned aside the Democrats' latest plan to stimulate the economy -- a tax credit for working Americans combined with higher taxes on the wealthy -- and argued that the nation was no longer in a recession.

He said he felt no pressure to produce an economic stimulus package and suggested that, with interest rates at "historic lows," the economy could very well revive on its own.

Mr. Bush began a news conference at the U.S. ambassador's residence here seeming determined to focus on his role as a head of state who holds a predominant position in the military and political councils of the Western world.

He tried to keep the focus on an optimistic assessment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting that had just concluded.

But in a reflection of the political realities that face him when he returns from The Hague this evening, the questioning quickly turned to the domestic issues that have come to dominate the electoral debate in the United States, to Mr. Bush's clear frustration.

The president found himself answering questions about abortion counseling, taxes, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, national health care, interest rates and other issues.

Even when the subject was foreign affairs, he was trying to explain why Americans suffering from economic recession should care whether the United States retains a leadership role in NATO or its continental allies develop their own "security identity."

At times, he seemed to shake off some of the hesitancy and defensiveness that has characterized his responses to Democratic assaults on domestic issues in recent weeks.

He accused the Democratic-controlled Congress of blocking legislation on taxes, transportation and other proposals that he has made in an avowed attempt to stimulate economic growth.

But at other times, he offered confused, rambling answers. "I'm not interested in higher tax cuts," he said at one point, prompting Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who was sitting nearby, to shake his head and mutter, "He means higher taxes."

At another point, asked if he would curtail his travels next year because of Democratic criticism and polls showing that Americans think he spends too much time on foreign policy, Mr. Bush wanted to say that he would pay no attention to the "carping," as he called it. But he tripped over his words.

"No, you're not going to see me stay put," he said, adding: "I am not going to forsake my responsibilities. You may not see me put as much -- I mean, un-put as much."

When pressed hard about his contest with the Democrats, Mr. Bush turned to a theme he has used before and is certain to raise again when pressure builds on domestic issues: his success in the Persian Gulf war this year.

"If I had had to listen to advice from the United States Senate leadership, the Democrats -- or from the House, the leadership over there -- to do something about the Persian Gulf, we'd have still been sitting there in the United States, fat, dumb and happy, with Saddam Hussein maybe in Saudi Arabia," he said.

The president said he recognized that he must do more to convey a sense of concern about domestic issues to Americans. He said he wanted to come up with a national health care proposal before the elections and acknowledged that he had not done as much as he might to promote awareness of AIDS.

But he said that any failure to improve the economy was not his fault, but that of Congress, which is controlled by the Democrats.

"I am going to do as better job as I possibly can on showing the concerns I feel, and hopefully, in spite of the opposition of Congress, try to find answers to some of the problems that are plaguing the American people," he said.

He added: "People are hurting there, and they need help. But they don't need the president to forswear his obligations for national security and foreign affairs."

Mr. Bush, who has been fighting a virtually constant battle over his opposition to legalized abortions since he took office, said he would veto newly approved legislation that lifts a federal ban on abortion counseling in family-planning clinics that receive federal money.

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