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Clinton, GOP Battle Over Budget Surplus

The Budget

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  • Social Security Special Report

  • By Peter Baker
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, February 18, 1999; Page A2

    The post-impeachment debate over domestic policy began in earnest yesterday as President Clinton promoted his plan to preserve most of future budget surpluses for Social Security while congressional Republicans accused of him of using phony numbers to mask rising debt.

    The skirmishing over the country's long-term financing foreshadowed a potentially robust battle between the White House and Congress, one that both sides appeared eager to engage in after emerging from the unpopular Senate impeachment trial that consumed Washington for more than a month.

    Clinton gathered 150 college students and other young people in the East Room of the White House to pitch his plans to bolster Social Security and Medicare while creating supplemental retirement accounts and repaying the national debt. In an address broadcast simultaneously to 41 college campuses, he argued that his approach was important not just to the elderly but to their grandchildren, and contrasted it with GOP proposals for an across-the-board tax cut.

    "Their idea sounds simpler, sounds good, even sounds fair 10 percent for everybody," Clinton said. "Our idea will give you a stronger economy, will save Social Security and Medicare, will stabilize families, will strengthen the ability of the United States to lead the world, and will make you feel a whole lot better 15 years from now."

    The president said Republicans should wait until then to slash taxes. "Fifteen years from now, if the Congress wants to give more tax relief, let them do it," he said.

    Republican leaders generally agree with Clinton's desire to put aside about 62 percent of projected surpluses for Social Security over 15 years but split sharply from him over the details and over what to do with the rest. A variety of Republicans came out firing yesterday, including House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (Tex.), Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.) and House Budget Committee Chairman John R. Kasich (Ohio), who is exploring a campaign for president.

    Citing a Congressional Budget Office analysis, Republicans complained that Clinton's plan would increase national debt, largely by counting commitments to Social Security payments long into the future.

    "As we work together to save Social Security, I hope you agree with me that we should address this issue in a manner that doesn't force our children to pay off an exploding national debt," Archer said in a letter to Clinton.

    White House officials called the interpretation "bogus" and misleading. "Unfortunately, many Republicans are simply firing any shots at the president's plan, no matter how illegitimate," said national economic adviser Gene Sperling.

    Both sides have said they want to collaborate on issues such as Social Security, at least in part to dull the bitterness of their impeachment showdown and to impress voters dismayed by the capital's long fixation with the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. Clinton plans to meet with congressional leaders next week, but that has not stopped them from trying to frame the debate on their own terms.

    Clinton intends to focus on his retirement proposals two or three times a week, aides said, as Republicans craft alternatives.

    During the East Room event, the president portrayed himself as taking on Republicans pursuing a "terrifically appealing" tax cut. "I realize that the path we have recommended . . . will not be the most popular one at first hearing," he told the youthful audience. But he asked for "the benefit of the doubt."

    Polls, however, have shown that Clinton's approach is the more politically popular plan. An ABC News poll last month found that 62 percent of those surveyed favored using surplus funds for Social Security and Medicare, compared with only 24 percent who preferred to cut income taxes.

    Indeed, Clinton's own pollster pointed to the appeal of his program at a breakfast with political reporters yesterday. In the fight over tax cuts, said Mark J. Penn, the public is "saying Social Security and Medicare come first." Tax-cut plans reflect a "Republican Party trying to play to a small constituency," especially the affluent, he said.

    Staff writer Thomas B. Edsall contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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