Clinton acts to reclaim role on U.S. agenda PRESIDENTIAL NEWS CONFERENCE


WASHINGTON -- Seeking to make his voice heard above the Republican roar, President Clinton insisted last night that he remains relevant to setting the national agenda.

In a rare prime time news conference, his first since Republicans took control of Congress in November, Mr. Clinton sought to reclaim the spotlight that has eluded him in recent months.

"The Constitution gives me relevance," Mr. Clinton said. "The president is relevant here, especially an activist president, and the fact that I am willing to work with the Republicans.

"The question is: Are they willing to work with me?"

But Mr. Clinton's desire to reach the widest audience was sharply limited by the refusal of the two most widely watched TV networks to carry his remarks.

Only CBS, which also had carried Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich's address to the nation earlier this month, chose to cover the event live. Top-rated ABC and runner-up NBC stayed with their entertainment programming. The news conference also was carried live by cable networks CNN and C-SPAN.

Even as he insisted that he wants to cooperate with the Congress, Mr. Clinton vowed to "go to the mat" for his embattled choice for surgeon general, Dr. Henry W. Foster Jr., who faces sharp Republican opposition. The president acknowledged last night that winning Senate confirmation for Dr. Foster would be "difficult."

Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, threatened this week to keep the Foster nomination from reaching the Senate floor. And another 1996 GOP presidential hopeful, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, has pledged to block it if it does.

"Presidential politics seems to have found its way into his nomination," Mr. Clinton said of Dr. Foster. "But you know, sometimes the American system works the way it's supposed to, and sometimes the right thing has been done.'

The Tennessee obstetrician's history of performing abortions has drawn intense fire from anti-abortion forces. Confirmation hearings are scheduled to begin next month.

There were no major surprises during the president's half-hour session with reporters in the East Room of the White House. Among the wide range of topics he addressed were:

* Welfare reform. He challenged Congress to put a welfare reform measure on his desk by July 4. But he called the House-passed version "too weak on [requiring] work and too tough on children."

Mr. Clinton has threatened to veto the House measure, which is expected to undergo significant modification in the Senate.

* The Middle East. He said the negotiations there are "not on the edge of a breakthrough" and insisted that Israel and Syria were not deadlocked. He declined to comment on details of the talks, however.

* Russia's nuclear program. He said he would be "quite aggressive" in opposing Russia's planned sale of nuclear technology to Iran when he meets with President Boris N. Yeltsin in Moscow next month.

Mr. Clinton repeated his claim that the billion-dollar deal was dangerous and not in Russia's best interest.

* Russia's desire to join NATO. In some of the strongest language he has used on the issue, Mr. Clinton said the United States had shown "good faith" in helping Russia transform itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he maintained that no nation should have a veto over the expansion of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Four former Soviet satellites -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- are moving toward associate membership in the Western alliance, but Russia, which has demanded full membership, is balking at taking a similar step.

* The declining dollar. Speaking only moments after the dollar hit a new post-World War II low against the Japanese yen in world markets, Mr. Clinton admitted that the U.S. government's power to strengthen the dollar "may be limited." He repeated his position that the United States wants a strong dollar, which he called important to the future of the economy.

* Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara's new book on Vietnam. Mr. Clinton, a former war protester, has said he felt vindicated by the revelation that a chief architect of the war believed that the war was wrong even as he helped escalate it.

Last night, Mr. Clinton said that the book supported his conclusion that the war was wrong. He stressed, however, that the book should not be used "as another opportunity to divide the United States over that."

That answer, among several others, seemed directly aimed at reassuring a key bloc of moderate-to-conservative swing voters -- and particularly middle-class white men -- who are regarded as crucial to his re-election chances.

Mr. Clinton's standing with white male voters has sunk in public opinion polling over the past two years. Last night, he tried to address their concerns on affirmative action, which has already emerged as a major 1996 campaign issue.

"Your principle should be, 'We're all better off if everybody's got an even chance, if there is no discrimination,' " he said. "But the government should never give someone who is unqualified anything over someone who is qualified."

Mr. Clinton, whose re-election headquarters opened for business last week, also repeated his defense of President Harry S. Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan 50 years ago and said it was not "the appropriate time" to be educating the American public on the pros and cons of dropping the bomb.

Often criticized for being long-winded, Mr. Clinton handled the questions with unusual crispness and brevity.

But less than a week after taking the first formal steps toward becoming a re-election candidate, he seemed unprepared for a direct question as to why he deserves another term.

"Because I have done what I have said I would do, because we have got good results, because the policies that I now advocate, most importantly, will address the outstanding problems of the country," he responded.

In the past, he has reserved prime time news conferences for major announcements or pleas for backing of specific agenda items. His last nighttime gathering with reporters was Aug. 3, in the midst of a losing battle over health care reform and crumbling popularity with the public, when the president endorsed a compromise health care proposal by Senate Democrats.

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