President Clinton broadened his proposal to renovate aging public schools yesterday, calling on Congress to appropriate $1.3 billion a year to help thousands of students escape "antiquated classrooms."
The president, flanked by the House and Senate's top-ranking Democrats, made the announcement as he unveiled part of his legislative agenda for 2000, his final year in office and one in which Democrats hope to regain control of Congress by pushing issues they believe are popular, such as school renovations. Clinton and the Democratic leaders also vowed to renew the fight for a host of initiatives--such as tighter gun regulations and a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients--that died last year in the Republican-controlled Congress.
"This unfinished agenda was a casualty of last year's raw partisan politics," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), laying the blame on GOP leaders. On Capitol Hill, Republicans said they would aggressively push their own agenda this year, including deep tax cuts, which Clinton promises to veto again.
The only new element of Clinton's legislative proposal is the call to appropriate $1.3 billion a year for school renovations, a task that historically has fallen to local jurisdictions. Congress has shown little interest in such a plan. Republican leaders say the federal government should be reluctant to dictate spending policies to local school systems.
Last year, Congress rejected Clinton's proposal to use $3.7 billion in tax credits over five years to help local governments issue nearly $25 billion worth of bonds to renovate about 5,000 schools. Clinton said yesterday he will renew that plan, and add the $1.3 billion annual appropriation initiative, in the budget proposal he will present to Congress early next month.
"A third of all our schools need extensive repairs or replacement," Clinton told reporters on a blustery White House lawn shortly before leaving Washington to spend his first night with his wife in their new house in Chappaqua, N.Y. "I've been to schools not only with leaky roofs, but with window frames so old that if you try to power-wash the windows the glass would pop out; with electrical service so inadequate that if you plug a new computer into the wall, the circuit breaker cuts out. . . . We know that antiquated classrooms do get in the way of learning."
The president summarized the rejected items from his 1999 agenda that he will again urge upon Congress, including "a strong, enforceable patients' bill of rights, sensible gun safety legislation, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, strengthening Social Security, modernizing Medicare with a voluntary prescription drug benefit and strengthening it, and raising the minimum wage."
Democrats planned yesterday's announcement weeks ago in anticipation of a big Republican celebration of the five-year anniversary of the GOP takeover of Congress. Democratic strategists wanted Clinton, Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) to be ready to respond in case of a hard-hitting GOP media event.
But the Republicans' grand plans fizzled, and yesterday's GOP commemorative gathering of more than 60 House members at the Capitol Hill Club was a surprisingly low-key event that required no direct response from the White House. Clinton, Daschle and Gephardt went ahead with their private meeting, followed by comments to reporters. They stressed the school renovation appropriation plan because it's the only new proposal that was ready for publicity, aides said.
"It's like putting a carnation in the lapel of an old suit," said a House Democratic aide. "They want to freshen it up a little, but it's not much different."
In a news conference highlighting the GOP's accomplishments during its five-year control of both congressional chambers, House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.) said his party will continue championing deep tax cuts, such as the package Clinton vetoed last fall.
"If you veto it 20 times, so be it," Watts said. "We believe tax relief and tax fairness is important."
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) did not respond directly to Clinton's school renovation plan, but his office said Republicans support modest efforts to help repair aging classrooms.
"The president passed up a great opportunity when he vetoed our tax [cut] bill last year, which included about $1 billion for school construction bonds," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery.
Daschle, who spoke after Clinton on the White House lawn, said Democrats also will try to help local school districts hire new teachers, but he offered few details.
"All over the country, communities are struggling to fill teaching jobs," and some are lowering their standards, he said. "Over the next 10 years, we're going to need more than 2 million more new teachers just to keep up with increasing student enrollments. . . . We have fought for and will continue to fight to help communities recruit and train qualified new teachers."
Gephardt, also speaking at the White House, said Democrats will reengage Republicans this year on several issues, including a push to give patients in managed health care systems greater authority to challenge or litigate decisions made regarding their medical treatment.
Medical decision-making still lies "in the hands of HMO bureaucrats," he said, "but we need to fix the system. We need to once again pass the bipartisan patients' bill of rights and insist that it reaches the president's desk early this year so it can be signed. We will not allow Republican leaders to once again bury this critical reform in the committees."
Staff writers Juliet Eilperin and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.
CAPTION: President Clinton listens as Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) speaks to reporters on the breezy White House lawn.