Clinton set to woo GOP governors State of Union speech tonight plays to more than Congress, public

'Lay out the challenges'

Welfare, Medicare, budget, education are among key points

February 04, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton delivers his State of the Union address tonight, he will do so to a joint session of Congress and to an audience of Americans who have given him the highest approval rating of his presidency.

But the president and his aides suggested yesterday that Clinton has another important audience in mind: the nation's governors, particularly the Republicans who hold power in many of the populous and influential states.

"In the State of the Union address, I'm going to lay out the challenges that I see not only for the president and the Congress, but also for the states and local communities and private citizens," Clinton told the governors assembled at the White House yesterday under the auspices of the National Governors' Association.

To make sure they understood that he was cultivating their support, the president invited all the governors to join him tonight in the Capitol for his address.

"I know that many of you have concerns about welfare reform, or Medicare spending or education, or the environment, transportation," Clinton said. "I'm looking forward to addressing those concerns, beginning today at this meeting, but also every day for the next four years."

Since the day he was re-elected, Clinton has stressed the need for bipartisan cooperation in Washington. Yesterday, he began reaching out to Republican governors as well.

One of Clinton's overtures yesterday involved a divisive provision to cut off welfare benefits to legal immigrants.

Last year, Clinton denounced this provision, included in the welfare reform bill, even while signing the measure into law. Over the weekend, a group of influential big-state governors hammered out a proposed compromise that would restore many benefits to immigrants who were elderly or disabled. Clinton signaled his support, even though the proposal does not go as far as he would like.

Likewise, Clinton told the governors that he was willing to finesse his concern about a lack of money in the welfare bill by helping provide transportation for recipients who must enter the work force.

Money could be found in the annual transportation budget, which usually goes for concrete and other capital expenses, to pay for such transportation needs, he noted. This would free up money to help recipients get to work without opening up the entire welfare bill for revision, which congressional Republicans have refused to do.

Finally, Clinton embraced a repeal of a provision that has been driving up states' Medicaid costs by guaranteeing high levels of repayment to health care providers.

"I hope he means it," said Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, a Republican. "It's important that any Medicaid plans that come out will give us the flexibility we need."

Presidents don't often discuss such legislative arcana in State of the Union speeches. But Clinton's addresses run longer than most -- tonight's is promised at about an hour long -- and aides say Clinton envisions a speech that lays out a detailed blueprint for the next years.

"In a very real sense, the president wrote the 1997 State of the Union addresses during the course of the 1996 campaign," said Mike McCurry, Clinton's spokesman. "Because over and over again, the president took to the American people exactly those policy proposals that he believes define the way in which America can meet the challenges that we face as we prepare for the 21st century."

Tonight, McCurry said, Clinton will list three primary challenges that must be met by the federal government. They are:

Balancing the budget. Although projected budget deficits have been cut in half during Clinton's tenure, the government is still running in the red. And the federal debt has grown from just over $4 trillion to nearly $5 trillion since the president took office. While the Republican-led Congress had to force the president to embrace a balanced-budget timetable, the national debt had already captured his attention: The more than $200 billion spent each year to pay the interest on the debt has prevented Clinton from enacting new programs he believes are vital to the nation's future.

Softening the effects of the sweeping welfare reform bill. McCurry said that finding jobs for former welfare recipients is a "historic challenge." The president is expected to offer tax incentives to companies that hire such people and to appeal to the good nature of Americans to help the poor make the transition from welfare to work.

Overhauling the way political campaigns are financed. The president will, as he has in the past, call for reforms that would ban the very practices Clinton employed in the 1996 campaign and that are now the focus of Justice Department investigations.

McCurry said the president considers those three issues the "unfinished business" facing the country.

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