President Clinton and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) stood side by side at a community meeting here tonight and pledged a bipartisan effort to help the nation's poorest regions, an unusual note of accord in several weeks of partisan budget wrangling.
The two later agreed to work over the weekend to try to resolve differences over the remaining appropriations bills needed to run the government in the new fiscal year. "The president offered to be around" on Sunday if House or Senate leaders want to speak with him directly, said White House spokesman Jake Siewert.
Hastert joined Clinton, civil rights leader Jesse L. Jackson and other Democrats at Englewood High School in southwest Chicago to say partisan differences should not keep Congress and the administration from agreeing on a program to attract private investment to low-employment regions. The president's "New Markets" initiative and the Republicans' "Renewable Communities" program share that general goal, but until tonight there was little sign the two sides would agree on details.
"I don't care what we call it," Hastert told the audience of about 700. "If it's going to help people and help communities, that's what it's all about. . . . America can't ignore those folks who sometimes get left behind."
Clinton said, "Today the speaker and I . . . are here to commit to you and to the American people to work in good faith, to merge our proposals into a historic bipartisan effort to renew our communities, to open new markets and new doors of opportunity."
Neither man offered details of a possible compromise. In general, the Republican plan relies more heavily on tax breaks for employers in targeted areas than does the administration plan. A five-point statement of "shared commitment to empower America's impoverished communities" said the two sides would provide targeted regions with "new equity capital, tax incentives and other tools."
"These economic incentives must be seen as a complement to other efforts to strengthen education, housing, crime [reduction] and drug-abuse reduction." the statement said.
Jackson called on Americans to move "beyond Republicans to a republic, beyond Democrats to democracy."
Clinton and Hastert then stood beaming with Jackson as local resident Joshua Watts, 12, belted out the song "I Believe I Can Fly."
Clinton began his day in southern Arkansas, returning a favor to a town that gave him a parade 21 years ago. He hailed Hermitage's tomato-growing co-op as a model for the type of public-private ventures the New Markets idea envisions.
Fifteen struggling farmers created the Hermitage Tomato Cooperative Association three years ago. Backed by federal loan guarantees, the co-op became the primary tomato supplier for Burger King. The fast-food company bought 88,000 of the 570,000 20-pound cartons of tomatoes the co-op sold last year.
Even with the co-op employing more than 100 workers in Bradley County, the 8.5 percent unemployment rate and 22.5 percent poverty rate remain well above the national averages. But conditions were worse before the co-op was founded, Clinton said, as small farmers lacked the marketing clout and economies of scale to do business with big buyers such as Burger King.
"We need more of these kinds of co-ops throughout our country," the president told several hundred people in an open-sided packing shed.
Like many presidential appearances, this one involved nearly as much pageantry as policy. The tomato-packing season ended weeks ago, so co-op officials had to bring back some workers and cartons of tomatoes to serve as backdrops as Clinton toured the plant and shook hands while cameras rolled.
Clinton repeatedly smiled and waved at old friends in the audience, reminding them of his previous visits here. As a 30-year-old Arkansas attorney general in the late 1970s, he recalled, he had helped resolve a housing dispute in Bradley County. Residents rewarded him, he said, when he first ran for governor in 1978.
"The school was shut down, the school band played for me, we had a parade down the main street," the president said. "I was just euphoric. I'm still excited about it 22 years later."