Clinton returns attention to his domestic agenda

Opportunity provided by lull in other crises

June 24, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With foreign policy crises at bay and impeachment receding into memory, President Clinton will re-launch his domestic agenda tomorrow, trying to revive older proposals that have languished from inattention while unveiling new measures such as incentives for business investment in impoverished enclaves.

Tomorrow's speech at Georgetown University will serve as something of a second state-of-the-union address -- the next installment, said one aide -- allowing Clinton to refocus on domestic issues after months of preoccupation abroad, first with Iraq, then Kosovo.

The proposals unveiled in the run-up to Clinton's January State of the Union address were promptly swamped by the impeachment trial in the Senate, then the conflict in the Balkans.

Only the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., and the ensuing debate about violence and guns captured the public's attention, White House aides say.

"This is a good opportunity to remind the American people that he continues to be focused on things that matter to them in their daily lives," said White House deputy chief of staff Maria Echaveste.

"Obviously, Kosovo took up a lot of oxygen."

An eight-day victory lap in Europe has buoyed Clinton's spirits, and confusion in Congress has left the political field largely open. Aides say inactivity and gridlock on Capitol Hill have allowed Clinton to continue shaping the legislative agenda.

"The fact is, when I look at what's happening in Congress, it's what's not happening that strikes me," said White House policy adviser Ann Lewis.

A variety of issues

The president's agenda is still broad.

Tomorrow Clinton will begin discussing his Medicare proposal, the details of which are due out next week.

The package will include a new Medicare prescription drug benefit for senior citizens, paid for partly by monthly premiums, some cost controls and a provision to open the Medicare system to competition from private insurers.

Under the Medicare proposal, the premiums for prescription drug coverage would be based on the ability of recipients to pay.

Some competition with private insurers should hold down costs overall, as the government scrambles to cut expenses through efficiency gains. The Health Care Financing Administration -- which runs Medicare -- would be given new flexibility in contracting and management to reduce its own costs.

Spreading the prosperity

The president also will unveil his "new markets initiative," designed to extend the reach of the nation's flourishing economy to poor pockets in some rural and urban areas.

Clinton will embark with business executives July 5 on a three-day trip to Mississippi, West Virginia and California to focus attention on some of those pockets.

Clinton will also try to revive proposals that have languished for months, such as new protections for managed care patients, an increase in the minimum wage and education measures linking federal education aid to pupil performance.

Political observers have long believed that the window of opportunity for real legislation this year was extremely slender, sandwiched between the winter impeachment drama and the presidential campaign, which has begun.

On some of the big issues, congressional Republicans and the White House remain far apart.

House Republicans are crafting a 10-year, $780 billion tax cut that will include deep cuts in estate taxes and the so-called marriage penalty, tax breaks for private school tuition and health insurance costs, and incentives for retirement savings.

Parts of the House measure will be unveiled before Congress departs July 3 for a weeklong recess, with the rest to come just after lawmakers return to Washington.

Clinton adamantly opposes a tax cut of that magnitude, saying it would have to be paid for with cuts in future Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Not so far apart

Behind the partisan rhetoric, Clinton and the Republicans are closer than they publicly admit on issues from Social Security reform to education.

"We're not that far apart on all this," said Rep. Michael N. Castle, a moderate Republican from Delaware.

White House aides have been quietly negotiating with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer of Texas on a Social Security proposal that would allow workers to divert 2 percent of their wages from payroll taxes to a mix of stocks and low-risk corporate bonds.

Though the president has not endorsed the Archer plan, administration aides have warmed to it, because it guarantees that Social Security benefits would not be cut even as it strengthens a system that could be insolvent by 2034.

Education objectives

A Republican education proposal unveiled Tuesday may differ from the president's in details and approaches, but it aims to accomplish many of the same objectives laid out by Clinton: reducing class size, linking federal aid to pupil performance and demanding state performance standards and achievement tests.

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