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  •   Clinton, Hill GOP Turn to Agendas

    Majority Leader Trent Lott talks with reporters after Friday's Senate vote to acquit President Clinton. (Reuters)
    By Eric Pianin
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, February 14, 1999; Page A24

    President Clinton and congressional Republicans, anxious to "pick up the pieces" after a 13-month constitutional crisis, yesterday shifted the focus back to foreign policy and domestic concerns that were neglected during the impeachment trial.

    A day after winning acquittal in his impeachment trial, Clinton used his weekly radio address to prepare Americans for the eventuality of a troop deployment in Kosovo and to admonish the warring Serbs and ethnic Albanians to reach agreement or face certain NATO military reprisal.

    "The time to stop the war is right now," he declared.

    At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pledged that Congress would move swiftly on a new legislative agenda, including pay raises for the military and a solution to the Y2K computer glitch, after months of preoccupation with the White House sex scandal.

    "Although most senators agreed that the president lied under oath while trying to obstruct justice, he will stay in office," Lott said in the Republicans' weekly radio address. "But we must move forward on the people's business. We must do our job."

    With less than two years remaining in his second term, Clinton is looking for some major legislative accomplishments, such as "saving" Social Security and Medicare, to salvage his legacy.

    For their part, congressional Republicans, whose approval rating with the public has sunk to new lows, are trying to soften their image with calls for bipartisanship and promoting an agenda topped by a major tax cut financed with future surpluses.

    Republicans and Democrats alike said that both parties could suffer unless they put aside their differences and promote important legislation. "If you're caught being obstinate, that will not inure to your benefit politically," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

    But whether the two sides can overcome the suspicion and bitterness generated by the impeachment battle is hard to gauge, especially in light of reports that Clinton has vowed to mount an all-out offensive to defeat many of his impeachment foes as he fights to win back the House for Democrats in 2000.

    Clinton said, after his acquittal Friday in the Senate, that he could forgive his enemies, but some GOP leaders are not so sure. "They're out there talking about revenge," Lott complained in an interview Friday. "Now, does that sound like reconciliation and progress?"

    Moreover, the ideological chasm between the two parties is so great that it is doubtful they can reach accommodation on such politically explosive issues as Social Security reform and taxes before the next election.

    Republicans are struggling with Clinton over how, when and even whether to mount a major overhaul of Social Security. Although GOP leaders quickly agreed to a Clinton plan to set aside roughly 60 percent of future budget surpluses for the big benefit program, there is little agreement over what that means in practical terms.

    Clinton has said using that money to retire much of the nation's publicly held debt would buy Social Security an extra 17 years of solvency, extending from 2032 to 2049 the date after which the program will be able to pay just three-quarters of benefits owed recipients.

    But Republicans said the plan would add no years to the program's life, leaving the two sides to argue over how to fix Social Security when neither side seems willing to cut benefits or raise the payroll taxes that pay for the program.

    For now, Lott and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) intend to start with popular and relatively simple proposals and leave the more challenging issues for later.

    Lott's promised "burst of activity" will begin when the Senate reconvenes Feb. 22, starting with bills dealing with education and national defense -- priorities that Clinton has already staked out or is threatening to snatch away from the Republicans.

    A popular bill to increase military pay and expand benefits, approved by the Armed Services Committee in the midst of the impeachment trial, will be first. In proposing larger pay increases and more generous benefits than Clinton proposed, Republicans are seeking both to trump his offer and underscore their contention that he has shortchanged the military in the past.

    Second in line is the Education Flexibility Partnership Act, already dubbed "ed-flex," which has bipartisan sponsorship but is seen by Republican leaders as a way of leaving a GOP mark in an area that Clinton and the Democrats have claimed as their own.

    The legislation is a scene-opener for a wider Senate debate later in the year over broader education themes, including Republican proposals for looser strings on federal funds and for education-related tax breaks and Democratic proposals to help school districts hire teachers and renovate crumbling schools. Democrats have indicated they may try to use the ed-flex bill as a launching pad for larger initiatives.

    Also on the late-winter schedule is another attempt to pass legislation calling for an antimissile defense system, which Clinton has embraced, although he and the Republicans disagree over the criteria for early deployment. Similar legislation failed to reach a final vote last year.

    Further down the pipeline is a long list of more ambitious initiatives, including proposed regulations for the managed health care industry and overhaul of Social Security, that are likely to prove far more difficult.

    Hastert has pledged to refocus the House on passing significant legislation this year, including Social Security reform, improving public education, tax cuts and increased defense spending.

    But at least for the coming weeks, the House will concentrate on lesser legislation: action on wireless privacy legislation, a measure to give governors more flexibility in spending education funds, patient protection legislation, bankruptcy reform and hurricane relief to Central America.

    "We're taking smaller bites at the same apple," explained Michele Davis, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.). "Our approach is to find the pieces of our agenda that we can move forward with bipartisan support. We'll move it quickly and inch the ball forward."

    Both the House and Senate Budget committees hope to approve budgets by mid-March, in time to get them through their respective chambers and then work out and pass a compromise House-Senate budget by the April 15 deadline. Last year, a bitter dispute between House and Senate budget writers over the size of tax cuts so snarled the process that Congress failed to pass a House-Senate budget for the first time since budget law began requiring one in 1974.

    Staff writers Helen Dewar, George Hager and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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