President Clinton vowed yesterday to make this summer a "season of progress" in Washington, during a day that aides said was designed to dispel doubts about his ability to influence domestic policy as the capital's attention turns to the 2000 elections.
Just back from a European summit, Clinton said he has "renewed energy for the domestic agenda" -- an implicit acknowledgment that those issues had receded from prominence as he dealt with his impeachment trial and then the allied air war in Yugoslavia.
At a speech at Georgetown University in the morning and a 75-minute afternoon news conference at the White House, Clinton said he is determined to prod reluctant lawmakers in both parties to pass legislation reforming Medicare, regulating gun sales, increasing the minimum wage, and expanding the federal role in education policy and funding.
Addressing a controversy that has drawn fire from Republicans, Clinton acknowledged that he misspoke at a news conference two months ago when he said no one had told him of any suspected Chinese espionage against U.S. nuclear research laboratories during his presidency. In fact, Clinton had been briefed on concerns about lax security and suspected spying during his tenure. After that news conference, published reports disclosed that Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was fired in March but has not been charged with a crime, had been under investigation since 1996 for allegedly downloading classified information to his personal computer.
"I think my choice of wording was poor," Clinton said yesterday. "What I should have said was I did not know of any specific instance of espionage, because I think that we've been suspicious all along."
For most of the 27 questions, Clinton's tone was relaxed. His theme throughout the day was that he and the American people want bipartisanship, rather than political combat, to dominate Washington in 1999. Pledging to set aside what he hinted were his bitter feelings for opponents who wanted him evicted from office, Clinton said: "People in positions of public responsibility are not permitted to have personal feelings that interfere with their obligations to the public. . . . There's not a single member of Congress that I wouldn't be willing to work with to do something that I felt was good for America."
Despite these words, he made plain his disdain for Congress's GOP majority -- and for his political opponents in general. "I regret to say that the atmosphere in Washington has become increasingly poisoned by bitter partisanship," Clinton said at Georgetown. At the news conference, he said that far more than "half the responsibility" for gridlock was with the GOP. He denounced Republicans for opening "the door for the gun lobby to run the Congress" for refusing to require background checks on weapons sold at gun shows and flea markets.
Several questioners pressed Clinton on the effects of last year's sex scandal and whether that episode had eroded his political strength or moral authority. While again acknowledging that he had erred in his relationship with a former intern and his lies about it, Clinton said he did not think the episode has affected his ability to lead. And he took a thinly veiled swipe at what he characterized as the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of opponents who denounce his personal affairs but ignore his agenda.
"I was raised to believe that we were supposed to try to be humble in our personal search, but aggressive in trying to help our neighbors," Clinton said. "Now, I get the feeling that people say now what we should do is be arrogant about how good we are and the heck with our neighbors."
He also was asked if the scandal will hurt Hillary Rodham Clinton's likely campaign for Senate, as well as the presidential bid of Vice President Gore. "All elections are about the future and all candidates are judged on their own merits," Clinton said. "I think that the American people know the country is in good shape."
Clinton's words came at a time when his ability to remain relevant in Washington's policy debate will receive a new test, and possibly the last big one of his presidency. Next week, he will unveil a plan for overhauling the financially ailing Medicare health plan for seniors. Clinton acknowledged that there are some in his party who would rather keep this as a campaign issue than enact reforms, but he insisted they were making a political miscalculation.
The better course for Democrats, he said, is to try to reach compromises with Republicans on large issues such as Medicare and to fight the campaign on other issues. "You accept the fact that there will be honest and legitimate differences between the two parties on outstanding issues, no matter how much we get done. You're better off doing what you can," he said.
The just-ended air war to protect ethnic Albanians in Kosovo -- and the arduous task ahead to rebuild a functioning society there -- dominated much of the news conference. Clinton said he regretted that NATO bombs killed civilians, but he insisted the number was small compared with the civilian deaths caused in Iraq during the U.S. Desert Storm operation. "If you talk to any military person who was involved in both conflicts, they will tell you that there were far, far more civilian casualties in Iraq -- I mean many more, by several times as many," he told reporters.
The president said Serbs must "get out of denial" and decide whether they want Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to remain their leader. Jabbing his index finger for emphasis, he said Serbia will receive no U.S. reconstruction money so long as Milosevic remains in power.
The Serbs, he said, "are going to have to decide whether they support his leadership or not; whether they think it's okay that all those tens of thousands of people were killed and all those hundreds of thousands of people were run out of their homes and all those little girls were raped and all those little boys were murdered. . . . And if they think it's okay, they can make that decision, but I wouldn't give them one red cent for reconstruction."
Clinton said it is regrettable but understandable that some ethnic Albanians returning to Kosovo are taking revenge on Serb civilians. "We are doing what we can to stop it, and I am concerned about it," he said. "I am not particularly surprised, after what they have been through." As to whether Serbs and ethnic Albanians can peacefully co-exist in Kosovo, he said, "Well, I don't think they could do it without a lot of help in the short run."
He praised his wife's efforts on domestic policy issues several times but sidestepped a question about the appropriateness of the first lady's use of government airplanes to visit New York state, where she is expected to run for the Senate. The Secret Service requires that she use such planes, he said. Beyond that, he said, "these are legitimate questions that we take quite seriously, she takes seriously, and we're trying to work through them as best as possible."
On other issues, Clinton:
Denied that his proposed book on improving race relations has become a "political hot potato," saying it has been delayed by the Kosovo war and other distractions. "I want to do this right," he said, insisting that the project would be completed.
Used a question about moral issues to tout his Patients' Bill of Rights legislation, which would require managed-care companies to provide certain services and rights to their members. "We know that in the case of the Patients' Bill of Rights, that people think it's a moral issue if they need to see a specialist or they need -- if they get hurt in an accident and they can't go to the nearest emergency room," he said.
Said he is not opposed to cutting taxes, as Republicans want to do, but said, "We should not pass up this chance to save Social Security, to save Medicare, to give the prescription drug benefits, to pay the debt down, which will keep the economy stronger and keep people with more jobs and higher incomes. Then we can talk about the tax cuts."
CAPTION: At a news conference, President Clinton said he has "renewed energy for the domestic agenda" after Yugoslav war.
CAPTION: At his lengthy news conference, President Clinton vowed to push Congress to pass legislation on Medicare, gun sales, the minimum wage, education and other matters.