GOP jibes at Clinton's ambitious, costly agenda

Democrat senator sees `progressive' leader

January 28, 2000|By Karen Hosler and David Folkenflik | Karen Hosler and David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Republicans and Democrats in Congress said President Clinton sounded last night like a man keenly aware he was running out of time in office.

According to GOP estimates, the breathtaking array of new initiatives touched almost every imaginable corner of American life and totaled $343 billion -- not counting tax cuts and money set aside to pay down the national debt.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici said he figured the president's spending plans were offered at the rate of $3.8 billion per minute over the course of his nearly 90-minute address.

"That's the most expensive speech in history," Domenici said.

Armed with a budget surplus of $1 trillion or more in his final year office, Clinton appears determined to get as much done as possible, the lawmakers said.

"This is Bill Clinton, the progressive, restless, ambitious leader of government," said Sen. Joseph L. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat. "The great thing is that because of the surplus he can do it all."

Clinton's State of the Union addresses have always offered a grab-bag list of goodies for every possible constituency. But lawmakers said there seemed to be more breadth and greater urgency to the message this year.

"He sounded like a man on the edge," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican. "He's given Congress a big challenge."

Clearly, some of the proposals -- notably the $110 billion plan to expand health coverage for the working poor -- were offered as campaign planks for Vice President Al Gore.

Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate's only physician, who delivered the Republican response, summarily dismissed Clinton's proposal as "just as bad" as the ill-fated plan for restructuring the health care system the president offered at the beginning of his term.

"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.

Clinton's proposal to require the licensing of handguns -- a gun control measure far bolder than anything this Congress seems inclined to pass -- fell flat on both sides of the aisle.

"The American people will throw that right back in his face," predicted Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican who is a leading advocate for the National Rifle Association.

"This was a very political speech," he said. "I think he mentioned Al Gore five times."

But many parts of the president's agenda drew broad support.

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.

"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."

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 many of the same priorities.

"There is some common ground here," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican.

For example, he said, GOP leaders would welcome greater enforcement of existing gun laws. Clinton reached out to Republicans with plans to boost military pay and to promote anti-ballistic missile defense systems, too, Ehrlich said.

Democrats embraced the president's final State of the Union address as an effort to give one last push to proposals -- such as 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.

"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 of Missouri.

Like Clinton, the Democrats said they don't believe that progress on a wide variety of issues has to wait until the next president takes office next year.

"Why shouldn't we get anything done in an election year?" countered Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat. "We're not entitled to a snow pass just because it's an election year."

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