Appealing for bipartisan effort, Clinton sees `limitless promise'

Proposes to spend surplus on Medicare and Social Security

Republicans react warily

Far-reaching goals on education crime, defense, tax policy

State Of The Union

January 20, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Venturing confidently into the House chamber where he had been impeached exactly a month before, President Clinton last night delivered an optimistic, even playful State of the Union address that laid out his boldest policy agenda in years.

He never mentioned his impeachment and pointedly ignored the Senate trial that could cripple his presidency, instead lacing his comments with appeals to bipartisanship. Clinton strayed from his prepared text at the very beginning, telling the newly elected House speaker, Dennis Hastert of Illinois: "At your swearing in, you asked us all to work together in a spirit of civility and bipartisanship. Mr. Speaker, let's do exactly that."

It was one of the strangest days Washington has seen in years, even for a "split-screen" president famous for his ability to "compartmentalize." On the very day that his lawyers launched their defense of the president on the Senate floor, Clinton addressed Congress as if he were at the height of his political power. Remarkably, he just might be.

"America is working again," Clinton told a House that had impeached him and a Senate that was determining whether to remove him from office.

"The promise of our future is limitless. But we cannot realize that promise if we allow the hum of our prosperity to lull us into complacency. How we fare as a nation far into the 21st century depends upon what we do as a nation today."

It was a theme of generational responsibility that he returned to again and again as he laid out a smorgasbord of policy proposals to link federal education aid to student and teacher performance, increase the federal tobacco tax by 55 cents a pack, address the financial and health care needs of an aging America, bolster military spending and secure the nation from terrorist attack.

The hallmark proposal was Clinton's idea to dedicate virtually all of the burgeoning budget surplus to shoring up Social Security and Medicare. Under the Clinton plan, more than $2.7 trillion in federal surpluses over the next 15 years would go toward staving off Social Security insolvency, with as much as $700 billion of that channeled into the stock market. The plan would be the most far-ranging change to the Social Security system since its inception 64 years ago, exposing federal tax dollars to the riches and caprices of the stock market like no proposal before it.

Saving Social Security

"With the number of elderly Americans set to double by 2030, the baby boom will become the senior boom. So, first and above all, we must save Social Security for the 21st century," Clinton said, reprising his "save Social Security first" catch phrase of 1998. "I reach out my hand to those of you of both parties in both houses and ask you to join me in saying to the American people, `We will save Social Security now.' "

White House aides called it Clinton's farthest-reaching agenda since he came to power in 1993. The slew of policy proposals were designed in part to prove that a president wounded by impeachment was not about to fade into history. And the president's advisers say Clinton hopes to bank on sky-high job approval ratings to enact some of the more controversial measures he is proposing.

"The president is firmly committed to an aggressive final two years in office," declared Doug Sosnik, a senior Clinton adviser.

And it was all delivered as if Monica Lewinsky had never entered the nation's psyche, by a president determined never to publicly acknowledge that he is only the second in the nation's history to be impeached. Indeed, Clinton joked with his audience, needled the Republicans, joked that his applause lines were garnering cheers from only one side of the aisle.

The Republican response

House Republicans were far less reticent to face up to what they had done to a popular president, addressing the impeachment issue head on. But they, too, were reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of their actions, referring to what they called "the president's situation" as if he had sprained his knee.

"Ladies and gentlemen, our country is not in crisis. There are no tanks in the streets. Our system of government is as solid as the Capitol dome you see behind me," said Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington, in the GOP's response to the State of the Union. "And no matter what the outcome of the president's situation, life in America will go on. Our lives will continue to be filled with practical matters, not constitutional ones."

Republicans reacted warily to the president's proposal, while proposing an agenda of their own that would take the nation on a far different track. Rather than seal off the surplus, Republicans have proposed sweeping tax cuts, including a 10 percent across-the-board income tax cut and a plan to eliminate the estate tax and the so-called "marriage penalty" that forces some married couples to pay more taxes than if they were single.

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