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  •   Budget Revelations Designed to Cast Clinton Favorably

    President Clinton
    President Clinton with Rep. Charles Rangel, (D-N.Y.), left, and Mayor Jeff Griffin of Reno, Nev., after announcing anti-crime initatives Tuesday. (Rick Bowmer — The Post)
    By John F. Harris
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 6, 1999; Page A8

    President Clinton offered another sneak preview of his proposed 2000 budget yesterday, trumpeting about $215 million his plan includes to help states impose tougher drug testing and treatment policies for prisoners and parolees.

    The Roosevelt Room announcement was the latest in a flurry of formal announcements and orchestrated leaks coming from the White House about its budget. The goal, say White House aides, is for these flurries to accumulate into a fresh blanket of domestic policy initiatives between now and Clinton's State of the Union address, planned for Jan. 19, and the official release of his budget on Feb. 1.

    For the White House, the careful staging of the budget is an old trick aimed at a new problem: With the Senate on the brink of an impeachment trial, Clinton needs more than ever to demonstrate that he remains at work trying to implement popular policies.

    On Dec. 19, the same day the House passed impeachment articles against Clinton, a group of budget and political aides gathered in the Roosevelt Room with a calendar. The purpose, aides said yesterday, was to map out a strategy for releasing newsworthy nuggets in Clinton's budget plan.

    A meeting a few days later in White House press secretary Joseph Lockhart's office was even more specific. Aides for a White House that has denounced "unauthorized leaks" put together a plan for which news organizations would be the recipient of authorized leaks about the budget.

    True to schedule, the leaks started coming over the New Year's break. The New York Times got advance billing of Clinton's defense spending plan. Officials laid out for The Washington Post proposals for regulating food safety. And several news organizations were briefed a day before Clinton announced on Monday a proposed tax credit to help families offset the cost of care for people with long-term disabilities.

    Profiting from the release of the budget is one of the advantages of incumbency. And White House officials said it only makes sense for them to maximize that profit by releasing the details over time, rather than putting them all into public view in one news cycle.

    But Republicans grouse that there is something fundamentally misleading about the White House's budget strip-tease. Clinton and his aides have happily divulged some of what they believe will be the most popular features of the budget, but have refused to say precisely how they plan to pay for new spending.

    Under the balanced-budget agreement he reached with Congress, there are tight limits that obligate Clinton to identify the funding source for new programs. And Clinton himself has insisted that all money from the budget surplus be saved pending a long-term overhaul of Social Security. But the president has given no one in the public or on Capitol Hill the information to assess the trade-offs he and his budget team have made.

    "It's a less-than-honest presentation," said Ari Fleisher, spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee. "To date, the administration has leaked in a self-serving manner just the news they want made."

    The news the administration does not want made, Fleisher suspects, is that it intends to pay for its programs through devices that Clinton will describe as adjusting fees or closing loopholes but that Republicans will call by another label: tax hikes.

    In last year's budget, Fleisher said, Clinton's budget identified nearly $39 billion over five years through various revenue adjustments, but Republicans eventually agreed that only $2 billion of that total represented legitimate loophole closures.

    White House officials said the totality of their budget will be clear soon enough, once the formal document is released. In the meantime, they have disparaged suggestions that Clinton's policy schedule is motivated by a desire to provide a contrast with the impeachment drama playing out on Capitol Hill.

    Referring to a pending administration report on steel imports, Lockhart joked at yesterday's White House briefing, "Oh, it's just this afternoon's attempt to divert attention."

    White House counselor Paul Begala noted that the White House is laying out its agenda in a way closely mirroring what it did a year ago -- before the name Monica S. Lewinsky came into popular parlance. "It's not a strategy, it's the presidency -- this is what we do," Begala said.

    Yet even if Clinton would be following much the same schedule in a non-scandal environment, advisers acknowledge that announcements such as yesterday's do serve a secondary purpose. Clinton has managed to withstand scandal and keep his approval ratings high, they said, in large measure because the public believes he has stayed focused on his agenda.

    For yesterday's event, Clinton was surrounded by Attorney General Janet Reno and White House drug policy director Barry R. McCaffrey as he announced his planned new money. Administration officials show that 45 percent of federal prisoners and 55 percent of state prisoners reported drug use in the month prior to their crimes, suggesting that better treatment and testing of prisoners and parolees could make a long-term dent in crime statistics.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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