WASHINGTON -- It will be a remarkable spectacle: The president of the United States will journey to the Capitol tonight to address a House of Representatives that has voted to impeach him and a Senate that is in the midst of sitting in judgment at his trial.
As late as 8: 30 p.m., the trial will adjourn for the day, and those jurors will march across the stately Capitol to listen respectfully to the man who has been under verbal assault since House prosecutors opened their case Thursday for his removal.
Some members of Congress from both parties favor President Clinton's delaying his State of the Union address, saying delivery at this sensitive moment would be unseemly. But the speech will go forward on the very day that Clinton's lawyers will begin his defense on the Senate floor.
"What's going on in the Senate right now is important," said Joe Lockhart, the White House spokesman. "The Senate needs to take care of the business before them. But the agenda and the people's business also has to go forward."
White House advisers never seriously considered postponing the president's once-a-year opportunity to speak at length to a national audience, without the filter of a skeptical media.
Some commentators have suggested that Clinton wait until after the trial to deliver a speech that would provide closure to the Monica Lewinsky ordeal. But White House advisers say he needs to act now to solidify his political standing before the Senate votes on whether to remove him from office.
By showing that he is concentrating his mind and his time on issues such as Social Security, health reform and education that concern ordinary Americans, White House officials say, Clinton will demonstrate to a national audience that he is ably at the helm of the federal government.
"He is a master of this venue," said Jody Powell, who was President Jimmy Carter's press secretary and is an informal Clinton adviser. "If I was in his shoes, I would absolutely use it. With a policy speech like this, he can make the point that the longer we spend churning around with this [scandal] stuff, the less likely these other things get done."
It was once difficult to imagine a State of the Union address wrapped in greater drama than the speech Clinton delivered a year ago. The presidential sex scandal had just burst into public view. Washington was awash in talk of resignation. The day before the address, Clinton had looked into television cameras, wagged his finger and sternly told the American people, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky."
The fate of his presidency might well have rested on his State of the Union speech, and Clinton delivered. He laid out a popular agenda. His poll ratings soared. And he quieted the storm somewhat.
This year's address again will be steeped in drama. Yet for a White House seemingly inured to crisis, it is beginning to seem almost commonplace. After all, White House aides said, Clinton faced tough questions in 1995 after the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress, in 1997 when critics complained that he lacked a vision for his second term and then, of course, last year.
A familiar moment
"Yet again, he is scheduled to do his State of the Union at a moment of high drama," said Maria Echaveste, a deputy White House chief of staff. "And he will show yet again to the American people that he has an agenda that they want."
Though the Senate will be in the process of deciding whether to remove the president from office, the sense of crisis has dissipated, congressional Republicans and Democrats agree. White House aides are increasingly confident that the necessary two-thirds of the Senate will not vote to convict Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Nevertheless, tonight's address is critical if Clinton is to regain authority with the Republican-led Congress, which, despite the president's high public approval ratings, may be in no mood to enact his policy agenda over the next two years.
"What is at stake is the balance of the Clinton administration," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank arm of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "I assume he will not be convicted and ousted. There will be two more years. What he has to do is lay out an agenda that goes to the heart of the biggest challenges facing the country and remind people that he is the indispensable actor."
The president's agenda
As he did last year before his State of the Union speech, Clinton has offered a preview of an agenda.
This year, education plans could dominate his proposals. Clinton is prepared to propose major revisions to the way the $20 billion in federal education spending is apportioned, rewarding school districts that adhere to guidelines on training teachers, enforcing classroom discipline, ending promotion of unqualified students and reporting school performance to parents.
School districts that do not meet these standards risk losing some or all federal assistance, officials said.
"The president's plan marks a sea change in national education policy, for the first time holding states and school districts accountable for progress and rewarding them for results," said Bruce Reed, the president's chief domestic policy adviser, paraphrasing a passage from the State of the Union speech.
Clinton also plans to renew his call for $4 billion in federal spending over five years to build schools and classrooms to relieve crowding and reduce class size in early grades, aides said. He will also ask for more than $1 billion to help pay for the hiring of 100,000 teachers and will seek to triple the funding for after-school programs.
He is also expected to propose:
Budgeting $1.2 billion over five years to help tens of thousands of disabled Americans return to work by making it easier for them to keep their health insurance.
Spending $1 billion in fiscal 2000 to acquire land around national parks and battlefields such as Antietam and Gettysburg and to help communities preserve park lands and open spaces.
Increase defense spending by $100 billion over six years on "readiness" issues, such as training and recruiting and spare parts for weapons systems.
Dedicating $6.2 billion over five years toward long-term care for the elderly and infirm.
Spending $215 million to test and treat inmates and ex-convicts for drug use.
Fixing Social Security
White House officials say the keystone proposals of the 2000 budget are still to come. Last year, the hallmark was his pledge to rope off the burgeoning budget surplus until the White House and Congress come up with a long-term fix for Social Security. That point will have to be made again, Echaveste said, this time in the broader context of addressing the "aging of America" that will encompass such issues as long-term health care and a Medicare fix.
"There's no question he has to say something about Social Security," she said. "It would be like not having the bookend for last year's vow to save Social Security first."
But Echaveste hinted that Clinton would not outline his own detailed reform proposal on Social Security, a program so popular that tampering with it can be politically perilous. "He will take the steps that he feels will advance likelihood there will be bipartisan solution," said.
Pressure is mounting on Clinton to do something dramatic. Democrats are demanding a presidential vision for the future. Even the House Republicans who voted to impeach Clinton are demanding that he now outline specific proposals, in part to give them political cover as they embark on the task of reforming Social Security and Medicare.
"Every president that has successfully changed Social Security or Medicare has relied on a commission or made proposals on his own," said Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee. "Specifics count."
Republicans need to get beyond impeachment as badly as Clinton does. Senate Republicans met privately this month with Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster, who explained that the party's poor showing in last year's election was due in part to voters' sense that the Republicans had no message other than trying to impeach Clinton.
"The message is, we have to continue to do the work we were sent here to do," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican. "It's important to realize that we have some simultaneous responsibilities."
Added Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Georgia Republican: "The people should be comforted that America is keeping the lights on."
Whether Clinton can sit down with the Republicans who drove his impeachment is still an open question. It is a question the president is likely to address in his State of the Union speech, however obliquely, with references to bipartisanship and shared responsibilities.
"It's up to them," Echaveste said of Republicans. "From his vantage point, he has always extended a hand, and in this State of the Union, he will say we can do this if we will work together."
But it is also up to Clinton, and, advisers say, it is in his interest to put impeachment behind him and extend an olive branch to his accusers.
"Whenever he gets into trouble, this president hunkers down and works harder on his public responsibilities," Marshall said. "The way he thinks he can atone for whatever wrongs he has done is to be a more effective president."
New York Times News Service contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/19/99