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Legislative Agenda Brings Two Sides Closer

Clinton, Reuters President Clinton greets members of Congress as he appears before a joint session of Congress. (Reuters)

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  • By Eric Pianin and Judith Havemann
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page A10

    The legislative agendas outlined yesterday by President Clinton and Republican leaders suggest that there is still room for compromise on defense, education, health care reform and other issues, despite bitter battling over impeachment.

    The two sides, as before, staked out sharply different positions on taxes: Senate Republican leaders formally unveiled a plan to use part of the projected budget surplus to provide a 10 percent across-the-board tax rate cut for all Americans and to eliminate the so-called marriage penalty. By contrast, Clinton proposed a series of targeted tax breaks, including a $500 credit for stay-at-home parents, while insisting that most of the surplus go to bolster Social Security and Medicare.

    "We have a surplus and we think that taxpayers should be able to benefit from the surplus," said Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.). "[Clinton] wants to spend a lot more money; he wants government to grow. Frankly, a lot of us want economic opportunity."

    Despite the looming battle over taxes and resounding GOP complaints last night that Clinton was calling for a return to "big government," both the president and Republicans are advocating a huge boost in defense spending – in excess of $100 billion over five years – to improve military readiness and retain experienced personnel. And the two sides favor important spending initiatives and reforms in education, health care and crime prevention, as well as legislation to avert the long-term bankruptcy of Social Security.

    "We have an opportunity . . . to have an agenda that we can advance that the American people will really approve of," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

    Lott and other Senate Republicans unveiled their proposals for a major tax cut, defense buildup and new educational opportunities at a morning news conference in anticipation of Clinton's State of the Union address last night. The proposals – which promised a GOP plan, not yet worked out, to save Social Security – generally mirror the agenda recently announced by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

    Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) noted that while nothing can be accomplished until Clinton's impeachment trial ends, "I think there's an opportunity to engage in some bipartisan work on some important issues."

    Although White House officials leaked many of the details of the president's initiatives before last night's nationally televised address, one big surprise was a proposal to inject vast new revenue into the Medicare program for seniors to ensure its solvency.

    Clinton asked Congress to reserve 15 percent of the anticipated budget surplus over 15 years to augment the trust fund that pays hospital costs of retirees. That fund is projected to go bankrupt by 2008. The infusion of an anticipated $650 billion to $700 billion of the budget surplus would extend the life of the trust fund until 2020. Moreover, Clinton called on Congress and a bipartisan commission studying the future of the program to include prescription drugs in any Medicare program.

    Republicans and Democrats agree that saving Medicare, which provides health care for 39 million elderly and disabled Americans, is one of the government's top priorities. But Republicans reacted cautiously yesterday to Clinton's proposal to use part of the surplus for that purpose.

    "Clinton hasn't told us the rest of the details – such as how [providing prescription drugs] is going to be paid for," said Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee. "By tax hikes?"

    Clinton's speech highlighted opportunities for cooperation as well as conflict, including:

    More spending for school construction and teacher hiring; changes in federal aid programs to force school districts to end the practice of "social promotions"; and adoption of performance exams for new teachers.

    The Republicans likely will oppose some of the spending increases and favor greater local control over federal funds. But Rep. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) applauded Clinton's proposals for bringing more accountability to the nation's school systems.

    A $1 billion welfare initiative to help the nation's most disadvantaged families move from welfare to work. The proposal has a familiar ring; Congress authorized a similar program for 1998 and 1999. But because most states have large surpluses in their welfare accounts, Congress may be reluctant to pass more funds their way.

    At the same time, Clinton's effort to target the $1 billion to help the fathers of children on welfare so they can pay child support and reconnect with their children's lives are popular on both sides of the aisle. Republicans last year proposed a $2 billion plan to help such fathers and announced plans to introduce it again.

    Increasing funding for child-care subsidies by $7.5 billion over five years to cover an additional 1 million children and an additional $3 billion over five years for early learning programs.

    An assortment of targeted tax breaks, including a $1,000-per-person tax credit to compensate for long-term care expenses, a tax credit that would allow parents who stay at home with infants to claim assumed child-care expenses up to $500 and write-offs for the steel industry, which has been hurt by low-priced imports from financially distressed Asian countries. Clinton also supports new tax breaks to encourage school construction and inner-city redevelopment.

    Senate Republicans, by contrast, favor a 10 percent across-the-board tax cut; increasing the annual allowable contribution to individual retirement accounts from $2,000 to $5,000; and using part of the surplus to provide personal IRAs to every worker. The House GOP has also called for using the surplus for tax relief, but has yet to detail a plan.

    By opposing the use of the surplus for anything but bailing out Social Security and Medicare and debt reduction, Clinton would effectively foreclose huge GOP tax cuts. For the Pentagon, Clinton advocated increasing defense spending by $112 billion over the next five years, including $12 billion next year. But Republicans favor an even bigger increase, and some, including Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), say Clinton's plan relies too heavily on accounting gimmicks.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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