Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 1997; Page A04
HOUSTON, Sept. 26—This was the day President Clinton said he has been eagerly awaiting. Finally, after months of foot dragging, the Senate began considering Clinton-backed legislation intended to curb special-interest money in politics. In a speech here this afternoon, Clinton pronounced himself "delighted the debate has begun."
And then he headed off to raise another $600,000.
As he has for much of this year, Clinton spent the day juggling competing political priorities. By threatening this week to force Congress to stay in session, the president was the one who pressured lawmakers to take up a campaign finance plan that today he said Americans "desperately need." Yet as the titular head of a Democratic Party mired in debt, Clinton feels an obligation to keep headlining fund-raisers such as this evening's $10,000-per-guest dinner.
The awkward marriage of these two disparate events on the same day, though, opened him up to plenty of criticism from those who question his commitment to reform.
"It shows maybe a more realistic view of where his priorities are," said Kent Cooper, director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that monitors the intersection of money and politics. "The administration and Democrats have been screaming for an opportunity to debate and vote on a topic the president has indicated he's concerned about. And yet every time he comes out supposedly strongly for campaign finance reform, within hours he's at another fund-raiser."
In his opening floor speech this morning, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) made a similar point, chiding the president for lobbying to ban the big-dollar contributions he simultaneously was collecting, and suggesting the legislation is a smoke screen to "change the subject" from the controversy surrounding Democratic improprieties. To make the point, Lott went so far as to ask that Clinton's Houston schedule be entered into the congressional record.
"What is he saying here?" Lott asked, and then supplied his own sarcastic answer: " `Oh, please stop me before I do it again.' "
White House press secretary Michael McCurry dismissed the complaints as unfounded. "I haven't heard Senator Lott volunteer to suspend soft money contributions to the Republican Party," he said. "When he does so, I think he'll have stronger ground to stand on when he criticizes."
The traditional White House defense which McCurry did not even bother to repeat today because, he said testily, "we have answered the same question over and over" is that Clinton has no choice but to continue soliciting the big-dollar, unregulated "soft money" contributions that fill a political party's coffers. To stop doing so, aides maintain, would amount to "unilateral disarmament."
If Clinton himself saw any irony to today's timing, he did not express it. During a talk at San Jacinto College before the fund-raiser, the president urged his audience of 1,300 students and residents to support the cause of cracking down on unregulated party campaign contributions.
"There will be a lot of efforts to make it look like we're going to do something and nothing will happen unless we all work hard and demand that something happen," he said.
Clinton later appeared at a seafood dinner for 70 to benefit the Democratic National Committee. The president told the wealthy crowd that he did not think there was anything wrong for "a person who has done well" to give to politicians. "I think it's a good thing you're here tonight, not a bad thing," he said, "and I'm proud of you for doing it."
Trying to turn criticism around, he added that "when our friends in the media say that we ought to do something to clean up our house, I say you're going to have to help us," a reference to the cost of television air time.
Clinton aides had committed to the fund-raiser weeks ago but, according to associate vice chancellor Steve Lestarjette, the White House did not contact the college about visiting there until last weekend. By adding an event related to his duties as president, the White House can bill a share of the overall costs of today's trip to the taxpayers rather than the DNC, which pays for purely political trips.
The college speech broke no new policy ground. The president trumpeted the fact that new Hope Scholarships included in the recently enacted balanced-budget agreement would pay for 88 percent of the typical community college student's tuition.
Clinton started and ended his day in Little Rock. In the morning, he toured two possible sites for his future presidential library. On Saturday, he plans to travel to Hot Springs, Ark., for a high school reunion before returning to Washington on Sunday.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company