Clinton aide previews State of Union speech

President's priorities: health care, gun control and balanced budget

January 17, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A top White House official offered a preview yesterday of President Clinton's State of the Union address, underscoring the president's commitment to three key issues: health care, gun control and balancing the budget for the long term.

White House Chief of Staff John Podesta indicated that the president's speech Jan. 27 and his 2001 budget will touch on those issues, which have been signatures of Clinton's White House tenure. In his final year in office, they are among the areas in which Clinton seems most intent on leaving a legacy.

Most politically charged is the White House's drive to get Congress to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, the government-subsidized heath insurance program that covers 39 million elderly and disabled people.

Podesta and leaders of the nation's pharmaceutical industry plan to meet this week to forge a consensus on the issue.

Although the drug companies and Clinton have been at war for the past year over the administration's proposals to cover prescription drugs, both sides have found reasons to work toward a deal on the issue before the November election.

For Clinton, winning passage of a prescription drug benefit for the nation's elderly would be a landmark health care achievement. For the pharmaceutical companies, it would guarantee that a part of the surplus would be funneled into their industry rather than being spent on other programs or returned to taxpayers in tax cuts.

People enrolled in Medicare have no coverage for prescription drugs. If they want such coverage, they must buy policies on the private market, but such policies are expensive. At least one-third of Medicare enrollees have no coverage at all for drugs, and a number of others can afford only limited plans.

"We hope to push forward with a comprehensive solution to the Medicare problem, to deal with the baby boom generation," Podesta said. "Front and center in that will be a prescription drug benefit, which we think the American people want and the American people need."

On gun control, the White House has a multipronged strategy, including the threat of joining a lawsuit by local housing authorities against gun manufacturers.

Podesta, who appeared yesterday on ABC's "This Week," referred to Clinton's proposal to have the federal government fund the development of "smart gun" technology, which uses fingerprints, radio waves or other identifying characteristics to ensure that a weapon can be fired only by its owner. The hope is that such guns would prevent children and intruders from firing a gun that is lying around a house.

Podesta also said the administration would put more money into law enforcement to put dealers out of business if they routinely sell guns to criminals.

"We're going to put more money in for law enforcement to go after dealers who are putting guns into the market," Podesta said. Clinton appears resolved to continue his effort to change the Democrats' image from that of the party of big spending to the party of fiscal prudence. He will propose a budget that would make it possible for the government to eliminate its $6 trillion debt by 2015, Podesta said.

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