Clinton draws line on budget President says threat by GOP won't lead to being 'blackmailed'

September 26, 1995|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton insisted yesterday he would not be "blackmailed" by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, but said he believes the White House and Republican-controlled Congress will ultimately agree on spending bills and avert a budget "train wreck."

The president voiced concern -- and resolve -- over Mr. Gingrich's recent threat to not raise the government's $4.9 trillion debt ceiling debt unless Mr. Clinton agreed to sign a budget resolution eliminating the federal deficit by the year 2002.

Congressional refusal to lift the debt ceiling is the most serious of the "train wreck" scenarios. Without authority to borrow new money, required by mid-November, the federal government could shut down.

"I'm not going to be blackmailed," Mr. Clinton said. " [But] if what the Republicans in Congress want to do is balance the budget, rather than destroy the federal government, then I share their goal."

However, the president later expressed optimism that budget chaos could be avoided, and even spoke of Mr. Gingrich with some respect.

"This country is not around here after all this time because we let the trains run off the tracks," he told reporters at the White House. "It's around here because people of good faith who have honest differences find principled compromises and common ground. And that's what I think will happen here."

"There may have to be some vetoes first," Mr. Clinton said, "but in the end, we'll reach accord."

Asked specifically about Mr. Gingrich, the president suggested that when the two men are alone -- and not playing to outside audiences -- they are capable of hammering out a deal.

"Our personal relationship has basically been candid and cordial," he said. "Our private conversations are basically free of political posturing. They're candid and they're straightforward."

The occasion for the talk was the 80th birthday of Godfrey "Budge" Sperling, who started an institutional Washington newsmaker event called the "Sperling breakfast" during the Kennedy administration -- and who has, over the years, become an institution himself.

But there was a serious side to the frivolity: Mr. Clinton was stung by weekend news reports quoting him as saying the country was in a "funk." The comment reminded some political observers of Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech, which haunted him during his re-election campaign against Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Clinton explained that he and his staff were upbeat and optimistic -- and he brought along Vice President Al Gore and several top aides, all of whom exhibited the same chipper mood as the boss.

"I believe that my vision of this country is the one that's best for the country," he said. "Four years ago, I ran because I thought there was no action being taken. . . . Now, I think the alternative [Republican] vision out there is destructive to the future we want."

The president also previewed the pitch for re-election. The strategy appears to be to position Mr. Clinton as the hero of traditional Democratic liberalism, while also tapping into the electorate's desire for less government.

Thus, Mr. Clinton portrayed himself as someone who worries deeply about the impact of proposed GOP budget plans on the poor and the elderly, a president who wants to spend money on jTC environmental cleanup, job training, education and a vast array of anti-poverty programs.

At the same time, he played up his role in shrinking the federal bureaucracy and in giving new authority to the states to experiment with ways to streamline everything from welfare to Medicare. And he said that those who say he's the last of the bison -- meaning the last of the New Deal Democrats -- don't know what they're talking about.

The president touched on several other issues, including:

* His popularity: He attributed his relatively low approval ratings -- consistently under 50 percent in most polls -- to his tackling of several tough issues, which made enemies of such powerful interests as the gun lobby and the tobacco industry.

"If you want to do things, you've got to make people mad," he said. "And if the people you make mad have access to television programs, radio programs . . . they will go wacky and generate animosity."

* Gen. Colin L. Powell: Mr. Clinton was asked what he thought of General Powell three different ways -- and each time, he avoided discussing the retired general in any detail. Asked to explain the "Colin Powell phenomenon," the president replied curtly, "That's your job, not mine."

A second reporter, taking a different tack, asked the president if he thought America was "ready" to elect a black president, and Mr. Clinton merely said he "would hope" that was so.

The third time, asked to identify "the defining difference" between General Powell and himself, Mr. Clinton instead simply said he was "grateful" for the general's recent remarks supportive of Mr. Clinton's stance on gun control and abortion rights.

* Economy: The president acknowledged that despite the good news on several fronts -- a robust stock market, low inflation, a flurry of new entrepreneurial activity -- he is a prisoner of one key indicator: stagnant family incomes.

The long-term solutions, he asserted, have already been proposed -- and in some cases enacted -- by his administration. They include expanding foreign trade and spending more for research, education and job training.

Taking a page from the playbook of several Republican presidential hopefuls, Mr. Clinton added a new solution as well: curbing immigration to make workers more scarce, thus driving up wages.

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