Parties say `me, too' on schools, health, tax cut

But many details remain to be resolved in Congress

January 28, 2000|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Republicans and Democrats in Congress responded to the president's State of the Union address with a "me-too" chorus of support for tax relief, better schools and expanded health care benefits.

Much quibbling remains over the details of any proposals that might pass this year, but leaders of both parties are at least focused on the same priorities.

Republicans in particular welcomed Clinton's $350 billion tax-cut plan, which has been revised since last year to include elements favored by the GOP. Their chief complaint was that the package is too small. The GOP-led Congress passed a measure more than twice that size last year, only to see the president veto it.

"I think we can do more," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr., a Delaware Republican. "Because of large and growing budget surpluses, we are in a position to provide significant tax relief for American families."

The GOP plans to move quickly on a measure to reduce the so-called "marriage penalty" on families with two wage-earners, similar to what the president has proposed.

A package of targeted tax cuts that might include other Clinton proposals, such as credits for long-term care and retirement savings, is considered likely to pass by the end of the year.

Democrats embraced the president's final State of the Union address as an effort to give one last push to proposals -- such as gun control, regulation of the managed care industry and a boost in the minimum wage -- that have drawn significant support in the past but gotten bogged down in political disputes before they could be enacted.

Those proposals include gun control, regulation of the managed care industry, and raising the minimum wage.

"Many of these ideas have gotten to conference committee through the efforts of a bipartisan group of Democrats and Republicans. I think the speech tonight will be the excellent relaunch we need to get this effort going again," said House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt.

One item of unfinished business clearly on the fast track is regulation of managed-care health insurance programs. Republican leaders yielded this week to Democratic demands that aggrieved patients be given the right to sue insurance companies when they believe they have been hurt by a denial of coverage.

"Congress will, for the first time, send the president a real `Patient's Bill of Rights' with strong patient protections," Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee announced last night in the GOP response to Clinton's speech.

Frist, the Senate's only physician, summarily dismissed Clinton's proposal for a $110 billion expansion of government-subsidized health coverage for the working poor, which had been offered largely to provide fodder for Democratic election campaigns.

Comparing it to the much larger, but unsuccessful proposal the president offered at the beginning of his first term, Frist called the new plan "just as bad as the first."

"It makes government even bigger and more bloated because each new program we heard about tonight -- and there were about 11 of them in health care alone -- comes with its own massive bureaucracy," Frist said.

But the Republicans signaled that they are inclined to pass some version of another Clinton health care proposal: to make prescription drug coverage available for Medicare recipients.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert said he is determined to come up with a plan that offers the new benefit only to the 35 percent of elderly Americans who have no drug coverage now -- not those covered by private insurance.

"We don't want to jeopardize the good coverage that already exists," Hastert said.

Education is another priority the lawmakers share with Clinton. For Democrats, the key issue is providing money to build schools and modernize others.

"Some engineers estimate that one-third of our public schools are substandard," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat. "The president says this is not acceptable for a great nation. I hope he can persuade the Republican leadership." Republicans say they are willing to spend more federal money for schools, but want to grant more control of how the money is spent to state and local authorities.

"The debate in Washington is not about money, it is about who makes the decisions," said Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, who shared the Republican response duties with Frist.

"We need a change of approach -- one that recognizes that local schools, not Washington offices, are the heart and home of education."

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