President Insists Congress Enact Reforms in Welfare, Health Care
By Ann Devroy
President Clinton last night threatened to veto any health care proposal that does not guarantee coverage for all Americans and he laid down a broad, unequivocal challenge to Congress to deliver on his ambitious domestic agenda.
As Republicans sat glumly glued to their seats, Clinton got personal in his call for guaranteed health insurance. "This is really a test for all of us" in government, he said. "We have health care that's always there. I think we need to give every hard-working, taxpaying American the health care security they have already given to us."
While health care was the centerpiece of the president's State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress, Clinton also insisted that welfare reform, anticrime legislation, education reform, revamping of the job training system and a range of other issues cannot be ignored this election year.
And beyond the lists of proposals, recommendations and appeals, Clinton ended his address with his signature, "New Democrat" appeal for personal responsibility and national renewal.
Recounting the efforts of Americans to help each other during the natural disasters that swept the country during the past year, he said, "Let us not reserve these better angels only for natural disasters, leaving our deepest problems to petty political fights. Let us instead be true to our spirit, facing facts, coming together, bringing hope, moving forward."
If Clinton focused on a collage of domestic initiatives, the Republican response to his speech aimed squarely at health care.
Using charts and graphs, Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) called Clinton's health care plan "a massive overdose of government control" and said that while Republicans would support the president when he "is moving America in the right direction," they would not when he took a wrong turn, as in health care.
Dole said, "More often than not, the president and his Democrat majority have taken what we believe is the wrong fork in the road not just on one or two matters of policy, but on their entire approach to government."
He defined Clinton's health care proposal: "More cost. Less choice. More taxes. Less quality. More government control. Less control for you and your family. That's what the president's government-run plan is likely to give you."
House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) approved of the overall tone of the speech. "He's using language I've been using for over a year," Gingrich said, claiming that Clinton had spoken of problems caused by the government.
Although Clinton has said repeatedly over the past months and last night that the only element of his health care plan that was nonnegotiable is guaranteed coverage for all, he repeated that last night in terms that lacked any wiggle room.
"If you send me legislation that does not guarantee every American private health insurance that can never be taken away, you will force me to take this pen, veto the legislation, and we'll come right back here and start all over again."
The veto threat was joined with another challenge to Congress: To stop the argument over whether health care and welfare can be overhauled simultaneously. "I know it will be difficult to tackle welfare reform in 1994 at the same time we tackle health care," Clinton said, "but I think it is inevitable and imperative."
Clinton said the White House will send Congress a welfare proposal in the spring that meets his campaign pledge to "change welfare as we know it."
"If we value work," he said last night, "we cannot justify a system that makes welfare more attractive than work."
Clinton labeled the argument that he should push health care first and welfare reform later a false choice; he said that until welfare recipients can be assured their health care and that of their children will be covered by insurance, taking a job would be too risky and too costly.
"Millions of people on welfare today are there because it's the only way they can get health care coverage for their families," Clinton said. "Until we solve the health care problem, we will not solve the welfare problem."
The president pledged during the 1992 campaign to enact a welfare plan that would limit benefits to two years while expanding education, training and child care for low-income families and providing public sector jobs as a last resort. A Clinton task force has put forth a draft proposal to that end, but the White House has not decided on an actual proposal or how much it would cost.
On health care, Clinton passionately defended his far-reaching proposal against a chorus of critics who assert it would create a massive new government bureaucracy, would limit individual choice of physicians and ration care and impose the equivalent of a new payroll tax on businesses by requiring them to pay 80 percent of premiums for their workers.
While dozens of alternative plans have been offered, the theme of all is to scale back Clinton's proposals for fear of their effect on the economy, on businesses and the quality of health care in the country. To that, at least for now, Clinton said no.
And he answered some Republicans and even a few from his own party who say the White House has exaggerated the problem and produced a phony health care "crisis" to justify his far-reaching proposal.
Ticking off case-by-case real life stories of Americans who have suffered from a lack of insurance, he said those who question the need for reform "don't understand the impact of this problem on people's lives. They think we don't get it. It is time we show them we do get it."
The president pointedly noted that it was a Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, who first proposed 20 years ago that health insurance be the right of every American. "If it was a good idea then, it's a better idea today," he said.
Although crime was not a major part of Clinton's election agenda, its growing place in the list of national concerns has moved it this year to a prime spot in the White House. With Republicans generally given more credit by the public for being tough on crime, Clinton last night tried some toughness of his own, endorsing the "three strikes and you're out" provision of the Senate crime bill.
The proposal provides that for those who commit three violent felonies, the penalty should be life in prison. The provision covers only federal crimes, however, limiting its impact. Republicans proposed it as part of legislation that includes several other provisions the president endorsed, including funds for 100,000 new police officers, more boot camps for first-time offenders, a ban on some semiautomatic weapons and an announcement that his budget will boost funds for drug treatment and prevention.
Clinton got his strongest applause and a show of rare Republican enthusiasm in his promotion of tough-on-crime legislation. At only one other point did Republicans join heartily in applauding the president, when he defended the need for a strong military.
Clinton, in outlining his accomplishments and those of Congress the past year, pointed to passage of the Brady bill that provides a waiting period for the purchase of handguns. James S. Brady, the White House press secretary who was shot in the 1981 assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan, was seated in in the Clinton family box in the congressional audience last night as a visual reminder of work on that legislation. Further down the row was another reminder that Democrats are not soft on crime, Detective Kevin Jett of the New York Police Department, an officer in one of the most dangerous precincts in the Bronx.
If health care and welfare reform have received the most presidential attention, another of Clinton's pet proposals overhauling the government system to train and retrain American workers also got a boost last night. Called a "reemployment program," rather than unemployment program, Clinton's proposal would merge hundreds of job training, unemployment guidance and other such programs into a comprehensive system to prepare workers for a new work environment.
As if to answer those who see little presidential interest in foreign affairs, Clinton devoted a chunk of his address to national security, reiterating the themes of basing his policies on expanding democracy overseas, on expanding American trade as the best route to economic prosperity and on working to reduce the world's nuclear arsenals.
And he answered what have been growing complaints from Republicans, and even some Democrats, that he has reduced defense spending too much to maintain adequate security.
"This year, many people urged me to cut our defense spending again so we could pay for other government programs," he said. "I told them no. The budget I will send to this Congress draws the line against further defense cuts and fully protects the readiness and quality of our forces."
© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company