A subdued President Clinton signed the final budget bill for the new fiscal year yesterday, highlighting the places where he prevailed over the Republican-led Congress but giving almost equal attention to those initiatives that fell short.
The $390 billion spending measure includes money for new school teachers, police officers, land preservation and scores of other federal programs. It does not, as Clinton had desired, include a prescription drug benefit for Medicare patients or tougher sanctions for hate crimes.
Assessing the bill that completes the federal government's spending package for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Clinton said: "Though it leaves some challenges unmet, it represents real progress. . . . As we celebrate what we've accomplished, I ask us all to be humble and mindful of what we still have to accomplish."
He then listed more than a half-dozen White House initiatives that fell by the wayside during the long weeks of negotiating with GOP congressional leaders. They include a "patients' bill of rights" to strengthen the consumer's hand in challenging managed-care companies; a higher minimum wage; criminal background checks for prospective buyers at gun shows; a more generous earnings limit for Social Security recipients; and a broadening of the hate crimes statute to cover violence motivated by the victim's sexual orientation.
"In the weeks and months ahead, we can achieve these vital goals if we keep in mind that the disagreements we have are far less important than our shared values and our shared responsibility to the future," said Clinton, who wore a gray sweater vest beneath his sports jacket in the late-autumn chill.
It is highly questionable, however, whether Congress will accede to Clinton's agenda in 2000, an election year and his final year in office. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) attended the signing ceremony, but later chuckled when reporters asked how Clinton's proposals might fare. "I wasn't paying attention to what he wanted to do next year," he said.
The budget bill's most important feature is something it lacks rather than contains. In September, Clinton vetoed the Republicans' biggest fiscal initiative, a $791 billion, 10-year tax cut, which would have triggered steep spending cuts.
Eschewing the sharp partisan rhetoric that had colored much of the budget debate, Clinton yesterday was rather dispassionate, saying simply that the budget bill "avoids risky tax cuts that would have spent hundreds of billions of dollars from the Social Security surplus and drained our ability to advance education and other important public purposes."
Once the September tax-cut veto took place, the administration and Congress settled into a series of sometimes rancorous negotiations on numerous issues, with House and Senate leaders occasionally traveling to the White House to break impasses. Clinton, buoyed by his veto power and relatively strong public approval ratings, prevailed in many cases, as he noted in his eight-minute speech yesterday.
He gained $1.3 billion for his plan to hire 100,000 new teachers, although he yielded to Republicans by giving local schools more flexibility in how to spend some of that money. Congress also yielded by providing $926 million for unpaid dues to the United Nations and $1.8 billion to help implement the Middle East peace accord reached at the Wye River Plantation in Maryland.
"We value America's role of leadership in the world, and this budget strengthens that role," Clinton said, "with greater investments in our nation's strong defense and our nation's diplomacy, by paying our dues and arrears to the United Nations, meeting our commitments to the Middle East peace process, providing debt relief for the poorest countries of the world, and funding efforts to safeguard nuclear weapons and expertise in Russia."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), one of a handful of lawmakers who attending the signing ceremony, told reporters that Clinton's accomplishments outshone the disappointments. He said the bill that Clinton signed shows "the president is a long way from being a lame-duck president. . . . He still has a great deal of clout in this town."
CAPTION: The president is flanked by Sen. Arlen Specter, left, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy after signing $390 billion budget bill.