WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, wrestling publicly with the complex and divisive issue of affirmative action, hinted yesterday that he would take steps to curb "set-asides" that guarantee that a portion of government contracts go to minority-owned companies.
In the face of growing Republican opposition to racial or gender preferences, Mr. Clinton last week ordered a review of such practices within the executive branch.
In addition, he and civil rights officials in his administration began using a line they hadn't uttered before -- that "there is good affirmative action and bad affirmative action."
In the midst of a series of lengthy responses at a news conference yesterday, Mr. Clinton suggested what he might have in mind by "bad" affirmative action:
"Our administration is against quotas and guaranteed results," the president said.
Experts in this area of law took this to mean that the president is taking a hard look at government set-asides.
These programs, by definition, have the same effect as quotas and are designed to guarantee certain results, not merely to afford equal opportunity.
In January, Mr. Clinton's Justice Department argued before the Supreme Court in favor of keeping a minority set-aside program.
The program was challenged by a white firm from Colorado that submitted the low bid to provide guard rails in a highway project.
But a Hispanic subcontractor won the bid under a government program that awarded $30,000 to the main contractor for choosing a minority-owned firm.
Asked specifically about those types of programs yesterday, the president pointedly did not defend them, saying he wanted to wait until the review he had ordered was finished.
"And then I will do whatever it is that I can do within my executive authority," he said.
At the same time, the president passionately defended the practice of requiring or encouraging employers, including government, to seek out, hire and promote qualified women and minorities.
"I have always been for trying to help people develop their capacities so they could fully participate," he said. "When I was a governor, I supported, for example, minority scholarship programs."
Yesterday's session was Mr. Clinton's first formal, solo news conference of the year. It was lengthy for him -- 46 minutes.
Mr. Clinton appeared relaxed and in good spirits, greeting most of the reporters by name and appearing not to be perturbed, as he often is, when the questions turned to the Whitewater affair, ethics investigations of his aides or Republican insults that have been hurled his way.
He scarcely mentioned the balanced budget amendment, which failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority in the Senate on Thursday, leaving Republicans vowing revenge against Mr. Clinton and his party.
Nevertheless, Mr. Clinton counterpunched determinedly against the Republicans, even as he complained that the 1996 election cycle was starting way too early.
"The Republicans now have proposed to cut education, nutritional help for mothers and schoolchildren, anti-drug efforts in our schools, and other things which appear to target children, in order to pay for tax cuts for upper-income Americans," he said.
In other asides, he cast some blame on Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas for the nation's federal debt, and on California Gov. Pete Wilson for the nation's immigration problems.
Mr. Dole and Mr. Wilson are expected to be two of the strongest Republican contenders for the Republican presidential nomination to oppose Mr. Clinton in 1996.
Aides said Mr. Clinton prepped for nearly three hours for this news conference, and there were moments when it showed.
Asked about Mr. Dole's contention that Mr. Clinton had abdicated his duty to produce a responsible federal budget, Mr. Clinton was ready:
"Well, my response to that is that Senator Dole has been part of Washington for 30 years -- and he hasn't always been in the minority," Mr. Clinton said.
"And when I got here, policies supported by his presidents, and deficits run up under Republican administrations . . . had given this country a $4 trillion debt, quadrupled in the 12 years of Republican ascendancy."
Previewing what he characterized as the meat of his own 1996 campaign speech, Mr. Clinton added:
"Since I've been president, we've got a lower deficit, a lower unemployment rate, a lower inflation rate, a higher growth rate . . . and still found a way to invest more in the education of our children. And, I might add, we have expanded trade more than they did, supported democracy and supported a reduction of the nuclear threat. So we've got a safer world and a stronger economy."
Several foreign policy issues were covered in yesterday's session, including:
* The president reiterated his commitment to use U.S. ground troops, if necessary, to safeguard the U.N. peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia should they be forced to withdraw. But he said he is determined to avoid "a long-term commitment of American ground troops" in the Balkans.
* Mr. Clinton continued to express strong confidence in Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin despite strains between Washington and Moscow caused by the bloodshed in Chechnya and Russia's agreement to sell nuclear technology to Iran.
This week, Mr. Dole suggested that Mr. Clinton ought to distance himself from Mr. Yeltsin. But Mr. Clinton pointed out that Mr. Yeltsin was the democratically elected president of his country and scoffed at the notion that the United States ought to somehow designate another leader with whom it would rather do business.
* Mr. Clinton also praised Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo for the way he has dealt with his nation's economic crisis. Mr. Clinton has committed billions of U.S. government dollars to shore up the Mexican peso.
"I think everyone would admit, who's worked on this, that the problem has turned out to be more difficult . . . than had originally been thought back in December and January," Mr. Clinton said.
"But I believe that he's moving in the right direction. And Mexico plainly has moved toward more democracy, more openness, and more market economics."