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  •   Eyeing 2000, Democrats Meld Agendas

    Clinton and Gore
    President Clinton and Vice President Gore meet with congressional Democrats at a rally Wednesday. (Bill O'Leary — The Post)
    By Juliet Eilperin and Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, March 4, 1999; Page A5

    Their appetites whetted by the prospect of taking over the House in 2000, congressional Democrats joined President Clinton in unveiling a legislative agenda yesterday aimed at wooing moderate Republicans and shoring up the party's image as protector of Medicare and Social Security.

    Democratic leaders said they wanted to work with Republicans to pass legislation, but indicated they would happily settle for taking their platform on education, health care and Social Security to the voters during the next campaign.

    "We figure if something is accomplished we'll get our share of the credit . . . because these are basically Democratic issues," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).

    Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Patrick J. Kennedy (R.I.) said that Republicans would be "running in the face of what the American people want" if they blocked Democratic proposals on Social Security, Medicare and education.

    During a one-hour rally with Clinton at the Library of Congress, Democrats embraced the same priorities the president cited in his State of the Union speech in January. Those plans include devoting 62 percent of the budget surplus to strengthening the Social Security system, allocating 15 percent to Medicare, and spending the rest of the surplus on targeted tax cuts, child care and long-term care and other initiatives. Democrats also vowed to push again for their "Patients' Bill of Rights," a managed-care reform bill that would allow patients to sue health maintenance organizations when they believe they are being unfairly denied treatment.

    Democrats were ebullient during the session, cheering Daschle when he called House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) "the next speaker of the House."

    "We want to make progress this session; we can't afford to waste another year mired in partisan wrangling and gridlock," Gephardt said. "We can work together. It's what the American people want."

    But Republicans are suspicious of the Democrats, with some predicting the minority party will pursue a scorched-earth strategy aimed at legislative deadlock that can be used to undermine the Republican majority in the next election. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) warned that moderates like himself were focused on convincing conservative Democrats to vote with the GOP, rather than defecting to support Democratic measures.

    "We have enough to offer as a Republican majority, we don't have to be lured into their trap," Foley said of the Democrats. "Good luck, Dick Gephardt. I don't think anyone's coming to your dance."

    House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called the Democratic agenda unbalanced. "It favors Washington bureaucracy over local control, government budget expansion over the family budget expansion, tax increases over tax relief," he said. Some outside observers said the Democrats have crafted their agenda with the 2000 elections very much in mind.

    "The House minority generally never can expect to have a big impact on the legislative agenda of the chamber. What they can do is set themselves up for the next campaign," said University of Minnesota political science professor Steven Smith. "They want to position themselves with a realistic agenda, one which has some popular appeal, so moderate Republicans are not scared off of a cross-party coalition."

    The Democrats' legislative strategy went on display yesterday, when the Senate began debating a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) giving states more flexibility in use of federal school aid.

    Democrats are trying to use this relatively modest bill as a staging area for votes on most of their education agenda, including a full authorization for Clinton's plan to help local school districts hire 100,000 more teachers over the next six years. While they will wait until later to push for Clinton's plan to help with school construction and rehabilitation costs, they plan to try to put Republicans on the spot by pushing for a vote on a nonbinding resolution endorsing the plan.

    Republicans viewed the "ed-flex" bill, along with an earlier measure to increase military pay and pensions, as a way of demonstrating they were doing the nation's business in a bipartisan way after the angst of Clinton's impeachment trial.

    But Democrats were also delighted, figuring it gave them a chance to come out of the trial on the legislative high ground by trumping the Republicans on an issue that people usually identify with Democrats.

    "We could not have a more exciting way to depart from the experience of the last two months," Daschle said. "It's like we ate our vegetables and now we're getting dessert."

    Republicans accuse Democrats of risking defeat of the ed-flex bill by trying to load it down with more contentious education proposals, saying these initiatives should be deferred until Congress takes up reauthorization of the broader Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) later this year.

    But Democrats have signaled that they will fight for what they can get short of jeopardizing passage of the measure, and then simply lobby again for all the proposals in connection with the ESEA reauthorization.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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