Clinton must move legislation soon Ignoring requests to delay action, Congress beating him to the punch

January 21, 1993|By Peter G. Gosselin | Peter G. Gosselin,Boston Globe

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton may be learning one of many hard lessons for a new chief executive: he must work quickly to maintain the lead on his legislative agenda.

As Mr. Clinton assumed the mantle of power yesterday, congressional Democrats were rushing to submit bills that picked up on his campaign themes of economic renewal and health-care reform. but --ed off in different directions, some where the new president may not care to go.

AThe stream of proposals, which could swell into a river in coming days, illustrates both Mr. Clinton's success in marketing his domestic agenda to the nation and the difficulty he will have in controlling it. Transition officials had asked congressional Democrats to hold off on submitting bills of their own until Mr. Clinton had a chance to unveil his plans.

"He's got to put people on notice what his priorities are so Congress, in its enthusiasm, doesn't leap-frog him and get there first," said former Republican Rep. Bill Frenzel of Minnesota.

Clinton aides disputed assertions that their man is being overtaken by events. They said Mr. Clinton will move quickly in the next few days to make good on campaign promises, such as lifting a ban on gays in the military and reversing a series of Bush administration anti-abortion decisions.

And they insist that he will meet or beat the timetable kept by President Ronald Reagan in submitting his first, mammoth overhaul of the federal budget.

The Clinton camp has studied Mr. Reagan's early months for clues about how to ride the groundswell of support for a new president, and say they will follow his example closely. Mr. Reagan laid out his economic plan to a joint session of Congress in mid-February 1981, and released details in stages through mid-March.

But some observers wonder whether that will be fast enough to assure that Mr. Clinton keeps ahead of the pack.

"He's already lost an opportunity to move when the country is most with him," said the Brookings Institution scholar Stephen H. Hess. "He's paying a high price for whetting people's appetite, then going so slow."

Hints abound of the problems that now await Mr. Clinton.

On health care, a key issue for him, Mr. Clinton's aides asked congressional Democrats not to introduce legislation until he could take the lead. But Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., who heads the House Ways and Means health subcommittee, submitted a package anyway.

A Stark aide confirmed that the lawmaker received Mr. Clinton's request but thought his proposal deserves consideration.

On infrastructure, another big Clinton theme, the new administration made a similar request with similar results.

Several Capitol Hill Democrats, including Rep. Norman Y. Mineta of California, chairman of the Public Works and Transportation Committee, and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Transportation, have introduced or are preparing bills to boost federal spending on everything from highways to housing by billions of dollars.

The proposals already are causing the new administration some headaches. Now that Mr. Stark has introduced a health plan, other legislators want to follow suit in order to safeguard seats for themselves at the negotiating table. And the infrastructure bills are setting off a clamor for new federal spending among big city mayors, organized labor and other traditionally Democratic constituencies, just as Mr. Clinton is seeking to convince the country that the deficit must be reduced.

Most observers said that Mr. Clinton can still seize control of the coming debate if only because he takes office after a dozen years of Republican rule. "There's an overwhelming desire to cooperate with him," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "We've learned that we're likelier to lose than we thought, and the consequences of losing are worse than we thought," Mr. Frank said.

But virtually all said that Mr. Clinton must move quickly -- 'N something he has shown a deep reluctance to do so far -- or lose a critical advantage.

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