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Bill Clinton President Clinton vowed Tuesday to fight for campaign finance reform. (AP Photo)


From The Post
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Clinton Vows Fight for Campaign Finance Law

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, Sept. 10, 1997; Page A01

President Clinton vowed yesterday to wage a public fight to pass a campaign finance reform bill this fall and to revamp Social Security by the time he leaves office – two politically volatile issues that he avoided in his first term.

After supporting an overhaul of fund-raising laws in the 1992 campaign, Clinton, in five years, has never launched a high-profile effort to pressure Congress to send him a bill. Each year, legislation died after filibusters in the Senate, and opponents are saying they will use the same tactic when the measure comes up later this month.

"They may do it, but if they do it this year," Clinton told an audience of students and faculty at American University, "we intend to see that it happens in the full glare of public light."

On the question of entitlement spending programs for the elderly – the soaring costs of which threaten to break the budget in the next century – Clinton said Medicare would be addressed by a commission to be named by him and Congress later this fall.

He was less precise about Social Security but, using some of the most direct language he has used to date on the subject, he promised to do something soon. "I know a lot of you don't think it's going to be there" by the time today's young people retire, Clinton told the students. "But it is. . . . It is wrong to let people pay into the fund for a benefit they will never receive.

"These are problems that revolve around demographic changes in our society and we owe it to you not to have to face this burden," he said, adding that his administration "would fulfill our responsibilities" to curb the cost of Social Security.

Clinton's address, billed by aides as a "back-to-work speech" after his three-week summer vacation, was a recitation of his fall schedule. And he said education – including increased funds for Pell grants to help college students with tuition and voluntary national tests for fourth- and eighth-graders – would be the centerpiece of the domestic agenda. Following his review of the tobacco settlement, the president said he hopes to shepherd passage of tobacco legislation "that focuses first and foremost on reducing smoking among young people."

On foreign policy, Clinton promised to overcome critics – most of them in his party – who oppose legislation giving him power to negotiate free-trade agreements on a "fast-track" basis, and to resist those who urge that he ostracize China. Chinese President Jiang Zemin is coming here for a summit next month. "Sitting down together across the table is far more likely to produce progress than pointing fingers across the Pacific," Clinton said.

He also appealed on behalf of former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld (R), his nominee to be ambassador to Mexico. Weld has been blocked by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee; while Clinton has urged confirmation, he has yet to take on Helms directly.

"I believe when a president nominates someone for a job that person is entitled to a hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee, and I think he ought to get it," Clinton said.

Clinton also told his young audience they have the greatest stake in finding a way to limit "greenhouse gases."

The Clinton administration will help draft a global treaty to deal with climate change at a United Nations conference in Kyoto, Japan, in December. He said he wants students to "make this a gripping national issue."

On campaign finance, Clinton's remarks yesterday were greeted with skepticism. He has promised to fight on behalf of a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), which would ban the unregulated "soft money" contributions of the sort that are at the heart of the controversy over Democratic fund-raising.

"If President Clinton has decided to make a major effort for passage of campaign finance reform, that would be welcome," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group pushing for the McCain-Feingold legislation. "It's fair to say this hasn't happened in the past."

This time, White House aides said, the president would make speeches and lobby lawmakers.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has consistently opposed campaign finance legislation, accused Clinton of highlighting the McCain-Feingold proposal this fall as a diversion from his alleged abuses in raising money for the Democratic National Committee. "The `full glare' of the American people is already on the problem – the problem is violations of existing law," he said.

White House officials said yesterday Clinton has made it clear that he wants a revamping of Social Security to be achieved by the time he leaves office, but that he is still mulling options for when or how to advance the issue. In the past, he has said establishing a commission, similar to the one being set up for Medicare, is an option.

A leader of the Concord Commission, a group pushing for entitlement reform, said she was encouraged even by Clinton's vague pronouncements. "They are committing to the process" of making changes, said Executive Director Martha Phillips. "They are not up to advocating substance yet, but they're talking process and that is good news."

Clinton, aides said, began working on yesterday's speech while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, and was making changes in the hours before delivery. White House senior adviser Rahm Emanuel said it was intended to "serve as the music and the notes that Washington will read off of this fall."

The lyrics on Clinton's sheet had a heavy share of boasting. He said his policies deserve credit for lower crime and a rising economy.

"We are steering the vast changes underway today in technology, trade and our social makeup," Clinton said. "In all this I want to emphasize that we are not merely riding the crest of the latest rise in the economic cycle. Our economic plan with the balanced budget at its center is the platform on which we are building America's future."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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