WASHINGTON -- Struggling to regain credibility in the twilight of his presidency, Bill Clinton has proposed new tax breaks for long-term health care and the first real increase in defense spending since the Cold War, and will unveil an education initiative and a crime-control program this week.
But Republicans and Democrats agree that a political atmosphere poisoned by the second presidential impeachment in history could doom the enactment of any new policy proposals, no matter how inexpensive or popular they are.
"The White House hasn't missed a beat during the whole impeachment process," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "No one can accuse the president of slowing down at all. Now, the question is, can Congress get beyond the partisan bickering and get anything done?"
Stephen Moore, a Republican economist at the Cato Institute, agreed, saying that many congressional Republicans do not trust Clinton to negotiate with them in good faith.
"There is an incredible lack of trust; you cannot underestimate that," Moore said. "The watchword for the next two years is going to be gridlock and paralysis."
The spate of presidential activity this week echoes the slew of small but voter-friendly policy gambits that the president unveiled at this time last year. Twelve months ago, Clinton proposed to lower the age of eligibility for Medicare, expand support for child care, protect patients in managed care programs, put 100,000 new teachers in the nation's schools and underwrite school-construction bonds.
But just days after those ideas were unveiled, Clinton was blindsided by the Monica Lewinsky scandal that quickly consumed Washington. Congress enacted only the proposal for 100,000 new teachers.
This year, Clinton's 1998 proposals will be back, along with a $6.2 billion package to help about 2 million families cope with long-term care of elderly and disabled relatives; a $12 billion increase in defense spending; a "zero tolerance" anti-drug program to target addicted convicts and offenders on probation and parole, and an initiative to discourage the promotion of students to the next grade unless they have demonstrated mastery of appropriate educational skills.
Details of the long-term care initiative were unveiled yesterday at the White House in a transcontinental ceremony that was as steeped in political undercurrents as in policy ideals. Looking determined, the president appeared with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, at his side at an event attended by a half-dozen senators who will soon serve as jurors in a trial that will determine whether he will remain in office. One of those senators was Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who is an outspoken opponent of any deal that would bypass a full-scale Senate impeachment trial.
"This new year gives us all a sense of making a fresh start, a sense of being able to think anew," Clinton began, after thanking the members of Congress for joining him. "It should also give us a sense of rededication."
Vice President Al Gore joined the event via satellite link from an adult day-care center in California, a state that will be critical for his 2000 bid for the presidency. And the proposal itself was designed to resonate with two critical constituencies: the elderly and the aging baby boomers whose retirements in the coming decades threaten to swamp the health care system.
"The senior boom is one of the central challenges of the coming century," declared Clinton, the first baby boom president. "One of the central worries of my generation is that as we age, we will impose an unsustainable burden on our children and undermine their ability to raise our grandchildren.
"We must use this time now to do everything in our power not only to lift the quality of life and the security of the aged and disabled today but to make sure that we do not impose that intolerable burden on our children."
The proposal would grant a $1,000 tax credit to Americans of all ages with long-term health care needs or to their family caregivers. It would also start a nationwide support program for caregivers, providing home care services, information and health care referrals. And it would offer federal employees private long-term care insurance options that Clinton said he hopes will serve as a model for other employers.
The president will detail today part of his anti-drug and crime proposal, a plan that will include funding for Maryland's Break the Cycle program, which targets drug-addicted offenders on probation and parole. His education initiative will be unveiled Thursday.
White House aides were quick to dismiss speculation that the proposals were intended to deflect attention from the pending Senate impeachment trial, noting that Clinton is scheduled to deliver his annual State of the Union address Jan. 19 and unveil his fiscal year 2000 budget proposal by Feb. 1.
"All you have to do is go back to the stories you did this time last year or the year before, and you will find we have traditionally used this time to generate public support for some of the ideas the president will have in his State of the Union and the budget," said Joe Lockhart, Clinton's spokesman.
But nothing is the same as last year or the year before. Clinton is now the first elected president to be impeached. Republican leadership in the House is in disarray. And the Senate's first order of business is a trial to consider removing the president on charges of lying under oath and obstructing justice to hide his affair with a former White House intern.
Cardin, who attended yesterday's long-term care event along with fellow Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, said he had a 10-minute conversation with the president, who appeared engaged and ready to work.
"His point was, these issues cannot wait," Cardin said. "The population is exploding with age. It would be tragic for Congress not to address these issues."
Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the presumed speaker of the House of the 106th Congress, vowed yesterday to move beyond the virulent partisanship of impeachment and take "the first step in restoring faith in this House of Representatives."
"This Congress has to go to work," Hastert declared. "We have to produce good things that the American people want."
But the odds are long, and not only because the president has been impeached. A lame-duck president entering his final two years in office has traditionally lacked the power or will to enact sweeping initiatives.
And the looming election of 2000 provides powerful incentives for both parties to dig in their heels around partisan issues. Not only will the White House be up for grabs in 2000, but control of the House -- and possibly the Senate -- could hang in the balance.
"Everything is really going to be geared toward the 2000 election," Moore of the Cato Institute said. "Everything's at stake."
Pub Date: 1/05/99