Once more, Clinton needs a comeback Economic program is high on agenda

January 24, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton faces the challenge thi week of living up to his reputation of being "The Comeback Kid."

Having been tripped up almost as soon as he entered the White House by the Zoe Baird debacle, he finds himself again in a situation that became familiar during his campaign -- having to bounce back from political adversity.

His first priority will be to find a compelling candidate to replace Ms. Baird as nominee for attorney general and then to speed his or her confirmation through the Senate. There is no shortage of qualified judges and lawyers, and a new, acceptable selection is expected promptly.

Mr. Clinton said yesterday that he has instructed his staff to "do some work on three or four folks" who are potential nominees for attorney general but gave no clues to their identities.

There is a recent precedent for effective damage control after Senate rejection of a Cabinet nominee: the replacement of former Sen. John G. Tower of Texas, President George Bush's original choice for defense secretary in 1989, by the highly regarded Dick Cheney.

Mr. Clinton has his Cabinet, minus an attorney general, and the three policy councils -- domestic, economic and national security -- ready to make the decisions that will define his first 100 days.

Central to these decisions will be his economic program, expected to be outlined when he delivers his State of the Union message in mid-February, with details to be filled in by March.

Just how controversial his proposals will be was reflected last week by the reaction to his decision Thursday to adjust the deficit targets set in the 1990 budget agreement. Critics said his action indicated that he was not serious about deficit reduction.

Clinton aides said it was necessary to adapt the figures to new circumstances to avoid possible across-the-board program cuts totaling $22.4 billion.

Paul Leonard, senior analyst with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, defended Mr. Clinton, saying, "The measure of this administration's seriousness about deficit reduction will have to wait until they are prepared to put forth their full deficit reduction plan -- what are the details, and how much political capital this administration puts behind seeing to it that the proposals are passed [by Congress]."

Congress itself is ready to take speedy action, starting this week, on at least four bills the administration supports. All were passed by the House and Senate last session but were vetoed by Mr. Bush.

The major bills, already in the hopper in both chambers, are: family and medical leave for workers; registration of voters when driving licenses are issued; reauthorization of the National Institutes of Health to allow for funding of fetal tissue and other medical research of particular interest to women; and campaign finance reform.

"It is legislation that is dead-center to the priorities the Clinton administration campaigned on and is concerned about," said Jeffrey R. Biggs, press secretary to House Speaker Thomas S. Foley.

"We now have an opportunity to get to work, and I believe there is a willingness and an eagerness to do that," said Diane Dewhirst, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell.

The Senate Labor Committee is expected to approve both the family leave and NIH legislation this week, and the House is expecting speedy parallel action.

After the first Clinton Cabinet meeting last week, Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich said the family-leave bill would be "one of the first out of the box."

The bill would require many companies to grant full-time workers unpaid home leave to care for ailing parents and sick children or to cope with childbirth or adoption. Mr. Clinton supported the bill during his campaign, and Mr. Mitchell said last week that it was the recognition "that working people aren't just cogs in a corporate well -- they're also parents, children, spouses, and they have family responsibilities that are very important."

The NIH reauthorization will provide funding for research on fetal tissue. Such research was banned by the Bush administration because the tissue usually came from aborted fetuses. But Mr. Clinton lifted the ban Friday, when he also rescinded the gag rule that barred publicly financed health clinics from providing abortion advice.

Another bill assured of quick approval by Congress and signature by Mr. Clinton is the "motor-voter" legislation that would let people register to vote when they apply for a driver's license. The Bush administration opposed the bill on the ground that it would present the opportunity for vote fraud. But Democrats believe the bill would make it more convenient for workers to register and widen the electoral registers.

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