Hungry interest groups could tilt Clinton agenda

November 23, 1992|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Out of power for 12 years, Democrats are eyeing President-elect Bill Clinton the way a hungry person views a buffet.

They're eager to fill long-empty plates with new policies, appointments and money for pet programs. Mr. Clinton whetted their appetites by making many campaign promises.

But candidate Clinton is now president-elect, and he has begun trying to balance commitments to different groups with the need to set legislative priorities that affect the biggest interest group of all: the middle class.

Just how difficult that can be Mr. Clinton learned right after the election, when he ignited criticism by renewing his pledge to end the ban on gays in the military.

Controversial issues like this one could sidetrack the next president, who has vowed to focus like a laser beam on the economy and can't afford to use up political capital on fights he'd rather wage later.

Mr. Clinton and his advisers are uncomfortably aware of the pressures he faces from predominantly Democratic constituencies that felt excluded during three Republican administrations, among them labor unions, minorities and environmental organizations.

A day doesn't go by that some group or prominent individual doesn't send him recommendations. Often, what is sought is even more federal spending than Mr. Clinton called for in his campaign proposals, which came under fire from deficit-conscious critics.

For example, a commission appointed by New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo urged Mr. Clinton last week to increase federal spending on public works by $50 billion, which is $30 billion more than Mr. Clinton proposed, and add another $22 billion a year to what the government now spends on education and job training.

The National Urban League and the U.S. Conference of Mayors also want huge increases in federal spending in these areas. What's more, they want a say in how and where the money is spent -- perhaps the most contentious issues of all.

Some interest-group proposals don't have federal price tags, such as the gay community's plea for an end to discrimination in the military.

Union leaders want to revise the new free-trade agreement with Mexico. Environmentalists seek tougher fuel efficiency standards in automobiles. Civil rights organizations expect prominent appointments of minorities, especially in the judiciary.

Some of these could trigger fights that would create enemies for Mr. Clinton at a time when he needs friends. At a minimum, they'd divert time and attention from the economy, health care and education, issues he says are his top priorities.

Mr. Clinton and his aides are urging groups to be patient. "I think we have to proceed with real discipline," he said recently.

A domestic policy adviser, Bruce Reed, warned: "Everybody in Washington wants to get to work, and there's a lot of pent-up demand for new ideas, new programs. But we don't really have a choice: $300 billion in the deficit is already too much."

Mr. Clinton is aided by the fact that he helped make the economy the public's top priority. As a result, although various interest groups hope to influence his economic proposals, many say they're willing to wait a while on other issues.

The Sierra Club, for example, has made fuel efficiency for new cars its major goal but is not expecting quick action by Mr. Clinton, even though the environmental group endorsed him.

"I don't think that's going to be an immediate focus for him," said Reid Wilson, the group's political affairs chief. "We want to work with the administration to get things done that it can get done. All administrations can only do so much at a given time."

Gregory King, a gay rights leader, said that while he wanted Mr. Clinton to sign quickly an executive order lifting the military ban, he would give the president some breathing room on its enactment.

"We understand that a change like this is going to require some time, that the policy will require a period of time to be implemented," said Mr. King, director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund.

At the AFL-CIO, which is eager to rewrite the Mexico trade agreement negotiated by the Bush administration, labor leaders think the explosive issue will be put on the back burner for several months.

"We are saying to the president-elect, take that time to look at it," said Bob McGlotten, legislative director for the AFL-CIO.

And the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which unsuccessfully urged a multibillion-dollar aid program on Mr. Clinton during the campaign, is "taking the position of supporting what he proposes rather than asking for additional things at this point," said spokesman Mike Brown.

Such statements indicate willingness to compromise and recognize that the economy comes first. But it doesn't mean these groups won't battle for their agendas, even while professing agreement with Mr. Clinton's overall goals.

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