Clinton offensive against GOP moves to next target -- foes' school-lunch plan

March 10, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton shared a cafeteria lunch yesterday with five elementary school children in a made-for-TV event designed to make the Republicans look like a bunch of Scrooges, extremists and irresponsible budget cutters.

"School lunches have always been seen by both Democrats and Republicans as an essential part of student education," Mr. Clinton told students and teachers at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Alexandria, Va.

"Unfortunately, this year, some members of the new Congress have decided that cutting this program would be a good way of cutting government spending and financing tax cuts for upper-income Americans."

House Republicans, angry at being repeatedly characterized by the president and his advisers as cruel and short-sighted, snapped back yesterday that the president was lying.

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, a member of the House Republican leadership, noted that the GOP proposal doesn't propose cutting school lunches or other food programs for the poor, but merely slowing the rate of annual increases and giving the states responsibility for running the program.

"There is no tactic too shameless, too low or too outrageous for this White House," Mr. Boehner said. "To resort to scaring school kids for political gain is unbelievable."

Aggressive strategy

The presidential visit to the school is the latest sign of an aggressive White House strategy intended to slow the juggernaut of legislation being passed by House Republicans under the banner of their "Contract with America."

That strategy, developed over the past two months by Mr. Clinton and his advisers, consists of shoring up Mr. Clinton's liberal Democratic base with appeals to Americans' traditional sympathy for the needy, while also appealing to the self-interest that various voting blocs have in specific government programs.

Yesterday, it was the school-lunch program. The president repeated an account making the rounds of a cafeteria worker who said she sees schoolchildren who are so hungry "they practically eat the food from other children's plates."

Two days before, it was the conference of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Mr. Clinton spoke darkly of Republican plans to hold down spending for medical equipment in Veterans Administration hospitals.

"I believe these cuts are unwise and unnecessary," Mr. Clinton said. "They would harm the veterans who need their nation's help the most."

In the aftermath of the Republicans' Nov. 8 election victory that left the GOP in control of both houses of Congress and most of the big-state governorships, Mr. Clinton and his advisers pledged to try to work constructively with the new majority.

The president said he would agree with the Republicans on some things and compromise on others. But he warned that there would be a few areas of strong philosophical differences on which he and the Republican Congress would clash.

That's not quite how it has worked out.

So far, the White House has agreed with only one initiative passed by the Republican-controlled House, and that measure -- the line-item veto -- has traditionally been pushed by the executive branch.

On everything else, budget cuts and new proposals alike, the president and his advisers have denounced the Republicans in stark terms. The word they use most often to describe them is "extremists."

Republicans denounced

To Republican ears, this criticism often sounds extreme itself.

In the past few days, Mr. Clinton's press secretary said that a proposed Republican cut in foreign aid to Jordan might cause a war in the Middle East; his vice president has linked Republican senators critical of the surgeon general nominee with the violence-prone anti-abortion activists; his chief of staff said that Republican proposals to cut a proposed increase of 5.2 percent next year to 4.5 percent for school lunches was the most "extreme" and "mean-spirited" proposal he'd ever seen in his years in Washington.

The president himself said Tuesday that Republican attempts to discourage teen-age pregnancy by eliminating cash grants for unmarried teen-agers who become pregnant is "very hard on children."

In addition, after sending a budget that was $200 billion out of balance to Capitol Hill, Mr. Clinton pronounced himself willing to entertain further cuts and dared Republicans to see if they could find any fat.

They believe they found plenty, but Mr. Clinton and his administration have attacked every cut proposed in the House -- even as they helped defeat a balanced budget amendment by one vote in the Senate.

These counterattacks have galled the Republicans, who fear that Mr. Clinton is both making hay with the public and stalling their agenda by aiding Senate Democrats who seek to delay votes on every issue.

And yesterday's event, which showed the president hobnobbing with some very cute kids, put some Republicans over the top.

"At lunch today, he didn't just feed these kids baloney," Mr. Boehner said.

"He said to them it's OK to lie, it's fine to scare the most vulnerable in our society if it helps you get on network television."

John Czwartacki, a spokesman for House Republicans, expressed frustration that Republicans are being pilloried for taking on the welfare issue.

But he volunteered that Mr. Clinton, "to his credit," has acknowledged that it needs reforming.

"No Republican wants to see a child starve, we understand that," Mr. Clinton's spokesman, Mike McCurry, said in an interview yesterday.

"But there is a large debate going on about what the role of government should be and how much we want to pay for it. We check into that debate wanting a leaner, more responsive government. The other team, in their heart of hearts, doesn't think government should be doing this stuff."

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