President says consensus is on his side

Clinton turns attention to Medicare, gun control, campaign fund reform

June 26, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Buoyed by success abroad and roused by congressional gridlock, President Clinton relaunched his domestic agenda yesterday, trying to seize the middle ground against a Republican Party that the president said has "poisoned" Washington with "petty bickering" and "bitter partisanship."

In a policy speech at Georgetown University, Clinton spoke in quiet tones about "an unprecedented consensus of conscience and common sense" in America regarding new gun controls, an increase in the minimum wage, restrictions on campaign fund raising, and protections for managed-care patients.

He reiterated this point at a solo news conference later, only his second of the year.

But that consensus is not evident in Washington.

The House killed Clinton's gun-control package last week, and the Senate is stalled over managed-care legislation. Still seeking to build a legacy that would consign his impeachment to a footnote in the history books, Clinton reminded Congress, "There will be plenty of time for politics in the months to come," saying, "This summer should be a season of progress."

Yet as he chided lawmakers, Clinton refused to take personal responsibility for the partisan rancor that many Republicans believe he, at least in part, caused through his evasions in the Monica Lewinsky affair and his unwillingness to address their wishes on tax cuts or Medicare reform.

The president set out an aggressive agenda, much of which, like prescription drug coverage for Medicare recipients, will face long odds for passage.

In trotting out their own agenda yesterday, congressional Republicans made clear that their most pressing demand would run directly counter to the president's wishes: a 10-year, $780 billion tax cut that not even they are sure how to pay for.

"I asked the president, `Please include tax relief in your agenda,' " House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said yesterday.

Still, the president said he was confident that as Republicans become more eager to show voters they have achieved something as leaders of Congress, his task will grow easier. In a wide-ranging news conference that went well over an hour, Clinton appeared relaxed and chatty, expressing satisfaction over NATO's victory in Kosovo, framing his legislative demands in moral terms, praising the presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore, and opening the door a crack to a negotiated tax cut with Republican leaders.

On Kosovo, Clinton made a highly emotional appeal to the Serbian people to depose their president, Slobodan Milosevic, saying, "They're going to have to come to grips with what Mr. Milosevic ordered in Kosovo" or they will not get "one red cent" of U.S. reconstruction aid.

"They're going to have to decide whether they support his leadership or not, whether they think it's OK that all those tens of thousands of people were killed and all those hundreds of thousands of people were run out of their homes, and all those little girls were raped and all those little boys were murdered," said Clinton, his voice rising with indignation.

Though a half-dozen of the news conference's 25 questions involved Kosovo, Clinton tried to steer his answers to domestic issues and to his efforts to pass legislation before Washington becomes consumed by the 2000 campaign.

He will unveil the details of his Medicare plan Tuesday, saying it will include a new, and expensive, prescription drug benefit and provisions to open the Medicare system to private-sector competition, something he says could lower costs.

The cost savings should extend by a decade, to 2025, the year Medicare is expected to run out of money. Though a prescription drug benefit would add new costs to an already overburdened health care system for the elderly, Clinton said that helping the elderly cover the mounting costs of medicine would save money in the long run by keeping them out of hospitals and away from costlier treatments, such as surgery.

"I don't really think there's any alternative here," Clinton said. "This is the most significant health care need that senior citizens have today."

Republicans have been particularly bitter about the Medicare issue because Clinton's three appointees to a bipartisan Medicare commission refused to endorse its draft reform plan.

Their opposition effectively scuttled the effort, leaving it to the president to draft his own plan without a Republican contribution.

Contending that Clinton has polarized the nation, Republicans have also pointed to polls that show morality has become the pre-eminent concern of American voters. The GOP attributes that to the White House scandals that have dogged Clinton.

But Clinton attributed the nation's rising moral concern to "the shattering effect that Littleton had," not to the cover-up of his extramarital affair that led to his impeachment.

Gun control and managed-care patient protections have a moral component, he said. Opponents of such measures, he said, are merely worried about the inconvenience that new regulations and restrictions would bring.

"When people see inconvenience elevated over the life of a child," he said, legislation becomes an issue of morality.

As for his own actions, the president said, "What I tried to do was acknowledge that, to whatever extent I had done that, it was dead wrong, and I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to rectify that, which is all anybody can do."

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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