Once-sympathetic Harkin raps Clinton on priorities

ON POLITICS

May 27, 1994|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who quit the 1992 presidential race after a string of primary losses and enthusiastically endorsed Bill Clinton, is extremely unhappy with his old friend. He is so unhappy, in fact, that he compares Clinton's approach to setting priorities with that of, you should pardon the expression, Ronald Reagan.

"It's almost like the old Reagan thing," Harkin says. "Reagan said he could have it all -- a huge increase in the military, cut taxes and balance the budget." The Clinton version, he suggests, is to maintain current defense spending, hold to the budget limits set by Congress last year and still say Congress should fund his domestic investment initiatives.

Harkin is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Labor, Education and Housing and Human Services departments dealing with much of the government's social and welfare agenda. He says Clinton's insistence on "holding defense harmless" and continuing to finance programs like the space station and research on the "Star Wars" space defense system is choking off the home-front programs he himself professes to want.

When Clinton last week had an elaborate White House signing of an extension and $700 million increase in the popular Head Start program, which is under the jurisdiction of Harkin's subcommittee, the Iowa senator stayed away. The money for it, Harkin says, simply is not there and won't be unless the president accepts cuts in defense and space and transfers the money. Others accuse the White House of showboating on popular programs at the expense of others just as worthy.

Last year, Harkin says, his subcommittee was able to find only 29 cents for every dollar authorized for Head Start, and this year it will be only 18 cents. If Clinton holds fast, he says, by next year "it will be less than a dime."

Harkin says he is "trying to send him a wake-up call." Clinton, he says, told voters in the 1992 campaign "he was going to put people first," but instead he's giving his top priorities to weapons and space. "He has to know we can't have another year like this."

The falling out between Harkin and Clinton was probably inevitable. Back in the 1992 campaign, Harkin stoutly but unsuccessfully espoused the Democratic Party's traditional New Deal viewpoint in the early primaries. But after losing about a dozen of them, he bowed out and endorsed Clinton, who was advertising himself as "a new kind of Democrat," which Harkin distinctly wasn't.

For the rest of the campaign, Harkin was an outspoken Clinton champion before liberal, and particularly labor, audiences that had some reservations about him, while continuing to express his own views on key issues. One of Harkin's pet targets was defense spending, which he charged had been vastly and wastefully overblown in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Clinton in 1992, while careful not to sound soft on defense, said he intended to cut defense spending, and indeed in his first State of the Union address observed that "as we restructure our military forces to meet the new threats of the post-Cold War world, it is true that we can responsibly reduce our defense budget."

But the heating up of trouble spots like Bosnia and Haiti is running counter to that attitude. One Democratic source on the House Appropriations Committee says "building down defense in response to the end of the Cold War has pretty much run its course. It's not going to shrink much anymore." Depletion of military stocks builds pressure for more military spending, this source says, to the point that some military people say another Desert Storm could not be waged today.

Harkin says he wants to see all agencies involved in discretionary spending take a proportionate hit in budget reduction, and inasmuch as defense takes up 43 percent of such spending it should be asked to siphon off enough to pay for the nondefense programs that Clinton himself has said he wants. Harkin says he hopes when the various constituencies caught in the squeeze realize what's happening, they will pressure the president to act. But there isn't much conviction in his voice.

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