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L.A. riots spur bipartisan effort to help cities


WASHINGTON -- Suddenly, in the midst of one the longest spells ever of partisan gridlock, the White House and Congress have discovered they need each other.

The Los Angeles riots have sparked the only bipartisan spirit of cooperation seen here since the presidential election campaign opened last fall. All sides agree it is likely to result in additional aid to the nation's cities, possibly as soon as this summer.

"I think this is the best chance we've had all year to actually get something done," said Nicholas E. Calio, chief White House lobbyist.

President Bush and the Democratic leaders of Congress are being moved to action because a domestic disaster -- riots that broke out after the verdict in the Rodney King case -- occurred when both already were held in low esteem by most Americans for their performance on domestic issues.

"Sometimes you need sort of kick in the teeth before we get the message," Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan, said after an unusually positive between Mr. Bush and congressional leaders at the White House.

But some urban advocates fear Mr. Bush and the lawmakers are now conspiring mostly to make it appear they are taking major action to help the cities, even though their agenda is very modest.

"We think they've come up with some sort of an agreement to nothing," said Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "We haven't seen anything that is very encouraging to us."

The president says he won't support a tax increase to finance new aid programs, and officials said the administration will also oppose a transfer of money from the defense budget.

The current budget agreement prevents any major new spending without a new source of funds.

But there was little talk of tax increases from the Democrats, either.

"We're not seeking to reopen old disagreements, but to emphasize agreements," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash.

Neither the White House nor the Congress has benefitted from their constant partisan bickering.

The president is given low marks in polls because Americans have lost faith in his handling of domestic issues. Lawmakers of both parties are the targets of an anti-incumbent fervor made worse by the House bank scandal.

During their first domestic policy meeting of the year yesterday, Mr. Bush and the Democratic leaders pledged to work together to enact a package of urban aid measures as quickly as possible.

A consensus appeared to emerge around proposals to provide tax incentives for investment in cities, more money for job training andsummer jobs, boost financing to help public housing tenants buy homes and expand of crime-fighting programs.

All of these programs were included in Mr. Bush's urban package, which he has offered before and is trying to resurrect. It would cost nearly $4 billion -- an amount that White House Budget Director Richard Darman said can be taken from other parts of the budget.

Of this amount, Mr. Bush would spend $1.8 billion on "enterprise zones" in which investors would be offered tax breaks in exchange for risking their investments in inner-city areas.

Another $1 billion would go toward the Home Ownership for People Everywhere program to help 36,000 families living in public housing purchase their homes, and start another 65,000 families on the road to home ownership.

The president also wants to spend $500 million for his "weed and seed" program that attempts to "weed" urban neighborhoods of drug dealers and "seed" the areas with social programs.

About $683 million would be earmarked to provide better job opportunities and training for youths and to assist in developing a skilled workforce.

"I'm extremely encouraged," said Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat who represents parts of Los Angeles hit by the riots. She sat in on the White House meeting yesterday after complaining about being excluded from the president's tour of the riot area last week.

"This is a time when both sides of the aisle must rise above partisan politics in the interest of this country," she said.

The two sides are still a long way from agreement, however.

The Democrats have offered some additional proposals, including a permanent extension of unemployment benefits, and starting work on their own version of Mr. Bush's package.

"We agreed on everything but the details," Mr. Dole quipped.

The congressional leaders did move swiftly low to provide the $800 million in emergency disaster relief and Small Business Administration loans that President Bush promised to the riot victims last week.

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