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  • Clinton Sees Smoother Government

    President Clinton
    His inaugural address is designed to "help flush the poison from the atmosphere," President Clinton said in an Oval Office interview.
    (James A. Parcell / Washington Post)
    By John Harris and Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Sunday, Jan. 19, 1997; Page A01

    President Clinton said the battles of his first term largely settled the debate over the role of government in his favor, clearing the way for a new season of cooperation that he hopes to usher in with an inaugural speech designed to "help flush the poison from the atmosphere."

    With ethics controversies blazing at the White House and on Capitol Hill, Clinton lamented in an interview last week that "we spend in general a disproportionate amount of time on all this kind of stuff," and pleaded with people to "look at the evidence and just make whatever judgments they think they have to make and then put it behind us."

    Clinton said his first term was marked by "big fights" with Republicans over what government should do, debates he thinks were ended by the two government shutdowns of a year ago and the November election when voters endorsed his concept of a leaner government that still keeps a large role in "creating the conditions and giving people the tools to make the most of their lives."

    Yet even as Clinton predicted that Republicans will be more accommodating to his philosophy, his comments in a 55-minute Oval Office interview underscored the extent to which a president who arrived here four years ago with a vastly more expensive and partisan agenda himself has yielded to GOP priorities.

    Clinton said he expects to leave office by forging bipartisan agreements to eliminate the deficit and "make the adjustments necessary to preserve Social Security and Medicare for future generations." He would not pledge to either goal when Republicans first took power on Capitol Hilltwo years ago. Such agreements—fraught with political risks—apparently won't come with Clinton alone in the lead.

    He said he doesn't expect "to go out and give a speech and prescribe everything I would be prepared to do" to control the costs of the popular entitlement programs, because that "invites people to play politics with it." Instead, the president said, if he and Republicans work in "a bipartisan process" then "the political risks are not as great as have been supposed."

    "We can't do it by immaculate conception, but we can't do it by fiat, either," he said during the interview. "In the end, this requires an act of Congress."

    Clinton said he does expect to be outspoken in public appearances and grass-roots lobbying to enact changes in campaign finance laws, and to defeat a proposed balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Two months ago, he acknowledged, he thought passage of the amendment, long-favored by Republicans, was virtually inevitable. Since then, he said, his count of the political arithmetic has changed.

    On other issues, Clinton defended his practice of inviting political supporters to spend the night at the White House and claimed no one was offered visits in the Lincoln Bedroom in exchange for contributions. He said he intends to help Vice President Gore's effort to succeed him in 2000 by letting him build a record that "minimizes opposition to him within the party."

    He also promised that he will follow up his recent plan to overhaul the federal government's assistance to the District of Columbia with other, unspecified, proposals in the coming weeks.

    The session at the White House on Thursday evening found the president by turns reflective about his legacy as he begins a second term, defensive about Democratic fund-raising practices and enthusiastic over how a new regimen of morning stretching exercises has helped his golf swing.

    He balanced his usual dark suit with a stylish deep-blue shirt, topped off by a red tie emblazoned with United Nations symbols.

    At one point, he described his recent visit from former opponent Robert J. Dole and used it to make a point on the ethics in Washington, recalling that the longtime senator told him that compared with 30 years ago, politicians are "much more honest" and "the standards are much higher."

    The moment must have really made an impression, because 20 minutes later in the interview, Clinton told the same anecdote, nearly word for word. His staff chalked it up to end-of-day fatigue, and confusion as he tried to keep straight what he had said during an interview with a news magazine earlier in the day.

    In his first public defense of his use of the Executive Mansion to entertain political supporters, Clinton asserted he had every right to invite generous contributors for overnight stays.

    The image of the Lincoln Bedroom up for sale has become one of the most vivid symbols of Clinton's participation in fund-raising that reaped millions for the Democratic National Committee during the election, but has prompted Justice Department and congressional inquiries.

    "I do not think it is a bad thing for a president to invite his strong supporters to stay in the White House," he said emphatically. "I think it would be a bad thing for anyone to be told if you give such and such amount of money, we'll let you spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. But I can tell you, that did not happen. That just did not happen."

    The president said he reviewed a list of everyone who has spent the night in the White House and found that many were personal friends, relatives or guests of his daughter, Chelsea.

    The White House has turned down requests to release that list publicly. Clinton, in the interview, said, "I'll have to look at it and consider what the precedent would be."

    He made clear he was involved in inviting guests, though he portrayed it as spontaneous. "If we were having a dinner, say, at the White House, I might ask somebody, 'Well, we can't [have] everybody that's come to this dinner stay, but I'd like to have one or two people stay over. Who do you think ought to stay over?'‚" he said. "But there was not any kind of plan to market the White House as a fund-raising tool."

    He laid the blame for questionable financial practices that have led to $1.5 million in contribution refunds at the feet of party officials who had scrapped a system for rigorously examining large contributions before they were accepted. "Every Democrat in America should be let down by" that decision, he said.

    Clinton has made a distinction between his campaign and the DNC operation, but as a practical matter, both were supervised by the White House.

    "It never occurred to me that anybody would have ever . . . dismantled operations to check all these checks coming in," he said. "And I still think that when all the smoke clears, I think that will prove to have been the biggest failing of this."

    The president repeated his pledge to press vigorously for legislation that would outlaw political action committee contributions to candidates, unlimited "soft money" gifts to the parties and donations by noncitizens. It's a pledge he has made before but never fulfilled to the satisfaction of advocacy groups pushing for reforms.

    Other difficult issues confronting Clinton after his inauguration center on the entitlement programs he has sworn to protect even as they pose major troubles for the nation's long-term fiscal solvency.

    Clinton said he was "quite optimistic" that Social Security and Medicare can be strengthened and "it wouldn't take much change" as long as the two parties work together, a viewpoint that has been met with skepticism among congressional Republicans who harbor memories of his campaign attacks on their program to restrain the growth of Medicare last year.

    "The political risks attendant upon doing what is only sensible for the long-term future are greatly overstated unless we turn it into an object of politics," he said.

    One set of recently proposed solutions for Social Security has caught Clinton's eye, though he was careful not to endorse them. Clinton said he was studying a commission's recommendations to invest some of the trust fund's money in the stock market to increase the money available to pay benefits to baby boomers as they approach retirement age, and that he has already "solicited a lot of opinions." However, he stressed that he remains "flatly against" privatizing Social Security.

    On Medicare, he defended his plan to shift $60 billion in home health care costs from a trust funded by payroll taxes to another trust funded through general tax revenue, a move derided as a shell game by GOP leaders. Clinton said he is not engaging in financial legerdemain and will make "a good-faith effort" to address Republican concerns.

    Saving the financially ailing District will be another top priority in the coming four years. After largely leaving the city to its own devices during his first term, Clinton said he was finally prodded into action by his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and his outgoing housing secretary, Henry Cisneros.

    His plan to have the federal government assume certain responsibilities, such as prisons, highways and a multibillion-dollar pension liability, while ending the annual $660 million federal payment to the District, will only be the beginning. Beyond that, he promised to "bring the federal government to bear in a more positive way on D.C.," particularly in trying to improve the local economy.

    He would not elaborate, but aides said that between the inauguration and his Feb. 4 State of the Union speech, Clinton plans an event to focus on literacy efforts in the District. Other initiatives, they said, will follow.

    "This city ought to function better than any other city in America," Clinton said. "I mean, it should be our jewel. . . . We ought to be able to turn this around, and I'm convinced we can."

    Clinton said he did not recall a conversation recounted in a book by his former political consultant, Dick Morris, in which the president supposedly said he would do everything in his power to ensure that Gore succeeds him. Clinton recalled that he might have said something like, "The best thing I can do if he decides to run for president is to make sure he succeeds as vice president, to give the authority to do things and let him do it."

    But it was Clinton's own legacy occupying his thoughts. He shared his hope that he would play a historic role similar to predecessors Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt—both of whom, he said, ushered in new centuries by redefining the role of government.

    Clinton said he defined that role through conflict in his first term—in debates over the budget, passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and an activist U.S. foreign policy—and that he hopes to define it through consensus in the second. "I think we've found a synthesis" between big government and no government, he said.

    "I think we'll fight about it in this session of Congress, but it's basically been resolved to the satisfaction of the American people," he said. Voters, he added, believe there "are some areas government has to do less" but others "especially education and the environment and public health and expanding access to health care and helping to reduce crime and all these things that we've done, that we should do more."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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