WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, with a month to go before the congressional elections, made a spirited defense of his first two years in office yesterday -- and teed off on congressional Republicans and "special interests" for preventing him from doing even more.
The president has been relatively quiet about politics recently, even as evidence mounted that Nov. 8 should be a victorious day for Republican candidates, many of whom seem to be campaigning against Mr. Clinton rather than their actual opponents.
Yesterday, at a news conference, Mr. Clinton launched his counterattack. He strode, unsmiling, into the East Room, and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, 20 months ago I came here to make a start to make America work for ordinary citizens again, to take on some tough issues, too long ignored, to get our economic house in order."
The president then enumerated the legislative accomplishments of his first two years in office, starting with his economic package, which raised taxes on the well-off, gave tax breaks to the working poor and lowered projected federal budget deficits.
"All of this was real progress," he said. "It's only a beginning, and more could have been done, but too many times an idea for creating jobs, reforming government, educating students or expanding income, fighting crime or cleaning up the environment or reforming the political system was met by someone trying to stop it, slow it, kill it or just talk it to death."
There is a subtle paradox to the message Mr. Clinton is trying to convey. On the one hand, he's insisting that he's proud of his legislative record of the past two years. At the same time, he's blasting the Republicans for obstructing his agenda.
In private, Mr. Clinton has expressed frustration that his popularity has declined even as the performance of the economy has improved.
Yesterday, some of this frustration came through. Asked about his low poll numbers -- and the fact that many Democratic candidates for state and local offices are distancing themselves from him -- Mr. Clinton snapped: "The record is a good one. You analyze it. You figure it out."
Twice, Mr. Clinton ridiculed the Republicans' recent "contract with America," signed by more than 300 GOP candidates, who pledged to balance the budget or willingly be thrown out of office. He also insisted that Republicans deliberately stifled initiatives merely to make him look bad and give themselves an advantage in the midterm elections.
Republicans on Capitol Hill called that accusation hogwash.
"He just doesn't get it," Rep. Newt Gingrich, the conservative Georgian who is set to take over as Republican House leader next term, told reporters yesterday. Mr. Gingrich warned that in the next Congress -- almost certain to be more conservative and more Republican -- Mr. Clinton would have even more trouble unless he abandons his "left-wing friends" and "big government" approach.
"On health care, for example, he doesn't understand that the public has rejected Clinton care," Mr. Gingrich said. "He doesn't understand that his promise to bring up some new version of it next year is regarded as a threat -- not a hope."
Meanwhile, the 103rd Congress quarreled its way through another day of inaction and recriminations as it headed toward a final Senate showdown over a California environmental bill that has become a symbol of the partisan warfare.
The California Desert Protection Act, which would save thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land from development, is viewed as a political prize for its chief sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who is facing re-election.
But Republicans, who oppose the bill and who want Rep. Michael Huffington to unseat Mrs. Feinstein, have worked desperately to stop it with delaying tactics. Yesterday, they forced Senate clerks to spend nearly four hours reading aloud every word of the 61-page bill.
Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas observed, "I think we ought to forget about this Congress as quickly as we can and go home."
But Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine, who has at least the 60 votes needed to defeat a GOP filibuster, vowed to keep the Senate in session all weekend if necessary to pass the measure passes.
In its final pre-election roll-call last night, the House voted 348-3 to approve a watered-down proposal designed to bring its employees under the requirements of the same labor and anti-discrimination laws that apply to other Americans. A bill to apply the rules to all congressional workers was tied up in the Senate.
In other final business, the House revised the so-called "nanny tax" that caused trouble for some Clinton administration nominees. The new law would require people who pay $1,000 or more a year to a household worker to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. But occasional baby-sitters and teen-agers who mow lawns would be exempt. Current law requires taxes to be paid on domestic help earning as little as $200 a year.
Taxes and the Cabinet
L At the news conference, Mr. Clinton touched on other issues:
* A tax cut. Asked if he would try to keep his 1992 campaign pledge to cut middle-class taxes, Mr. Clinton hinted strongly that he would submit some kind of tax cut proposal.
* Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Asked whom he had in mind as a replacement for Mr. Espy, who is leaving under the cloud of an ethics investigation, he said that he wanted someone who would "faithfully implement" the reforms started by Mr. Espy.
* Henry G. Cisneros, the secretary of housing and urban development. Mr. Clinton said that the White House knew before Mr. Cisneros was nominated that he was making payments to a former mistress. Mr. Clinton said that it was also known by Mr. Cisneros' family and that public disclosure of the matter had not weakened Mr. Cisneros' effectiveness. "He's been . . . painfully forthright," Mr. Clinton said. "And I think he has been an extraordinarily gifted HUD secretary."