WASHINGTON -- Venturing confidently into the House chamber where he had been impeached exactly a month before, President Clinton last night delivered an optimistic, even playful State of the Union address that laid out his boldest policy agenda in years.
He never mentioned his impeachment and pointedly ignored the Senate trial that could cripple his presidency, instead lacing his comments with appeals to bipartisanship. Clinton strayed from his prepared text at the very beginning, telling the newly elected House speaker, Dennis Hastert of Illinois: "At your swearing in, you asked us all to work together in a spirit of civility and bipartisanship. Mr. Speaker, let's do exactly that."
It was one of the strangest days Washington has seen in years, even for a "split-screen" president famous for his ability to "compartmentalize." On the very day that his lawyers launched their defense of the president on the Senate floor, Clinton addressed Congress as if he were at the height of his political power. Remarkably, he just might be.
"America is working again," Clinton told a House that had impeached him and a Senate that was determining whether to remove him from office.
"The promise of our future is limitless. But we cannot realize that promise if we allow the hum of our prosperity to lull us into complacency. How we fare as a nation far into the 21st century depends upon what we do as a nation today."
It was a theme of generational responsibility that he returned to again and again as he laid out a smorgasbord of policy proposals to link federal education aid to student and teacher performance, increase the federal tobacco tax by 55 cents a pack, address the financial and health care needs of an aging America, bolster military spending and secure the nation from terrorist attack.
The hallmark proposal was Clinton's idea to dedicate virtually all of the burgeoning budget surplus to shoring up Social Security and Medicare. Under the Clinton plan, more than $2.7 trillion in federal surpluses over the next 15 years would go toward staving off Social Security insolvency, with as much as $700 billion of that channeled into the stock market. The plan would be the most far-ranging change to the Social Security system since its inception 64 years ago, exposing federal tax dollars to the riches and caprices of the stock market like no proposal before it.
Saving Social Security
"With the number of elderly Americans set to double by 2030, the baby boom will become the senior boom. So, first and above all, we must save Social Security for the 21st century," Clinton said, reprising his "save Social Security first" catch phrase of 1998. "I reach out my hand to those of you of both parties in both houses and ask you to join me in saying to the American people, 'We will save Social Security now.' "
White House aides called it Clinton's farthest-reaching agenda since he came to power in 1993. The slew of policy proposals were designed in part to prove that a president wounded by impeachment was not about to fade into history. And the president's advisers say Clinton hopes to bank on sky-high job approval ratings to enact some of the more controversial measures he is proposing.
"The president is firmly committed to an aggressive final two years in office," declared Doug Sosnik, a senior Clinton adviser.
And it was all delivered as if Monica Lewinsky had never entered the nation's psyche, by a president determined never to publicly acknowledge that he is only the second in the nation's history to be impeached. Indeed, Clinton joked with his audience, needled the Republicans, joked that his applause lines were garnering cheers from only one side of the aisle.
The Republican response
House Republicans were far less reticent to face up to what they had done to a popular president, addressing the impeachment issue head on. But they, too, were reluctant to acknowledge the gravity of their actions, referring to what they called "the president's situation" as if he had sprained his knee.
"Ladies and gentlemen, our country is not in crisis. There are no tanks in the streets. Our system of government is as solid as the Capitol dome you see behind me," said Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington, in the GOP's response to the State of the Union. "And no matter what the outcome of the president's situation, life in America will go on. Our lives will continue to be filled with practical matters, not constitutional ones."
Republicans reacted warily to the president's proposal, while proposing an agenda of their own that would take the nation on a far different track. Rather than seal off the surplus, Republicans have proposed sweeping tax cuts, including a 10 percent across-the-board income tax cut and a plan to eliminate the estate tax and the so-called "marriage penalty" that forces some married couples to pay more taxes than if they were single.
"In all our tax policies, we start from this premise: The people's money belongs to the people, not to the government," Dunn said.
Gene Sperling, chairman of the president's National Economic Council, hinted strongly that Clinton would block any tax proposal as broad as the GOP's, saying it would squander the surplus when the nation must prepare for retirement of the baby boom generation.
"The president would not allow taking some of the surplus and doing something popular, instead of helping save Social Security," Sperling said, warning Congress away from tax cuts and large spending programs.
But the president offered tax cuts and spending programs of his own. Clinton proposed tripling federal funding for after-school and summer school programs, to $600 million. The president would release that aid and virtually all other federal education programs only to states and school districts that enact strict new performance standards for teachers and students.
"Each year, the national government invests more than $15 billion in our public schools," Clinton said. "I believe we must change the way we invest that money, to support what works and to stop supporting what doesn't."
Following up on a proposal from last year, Clinton renewed his call for more federal funding for child care, but this time he sweetened the pot for conservatives, proposing a $500 tax credit for families with a single wage earner and a child under a year old.
As part of a broad proposal to address the issues of an aging America, the president proposed a $1,000 tax credit for families saddled with long-term health care costs as part of $6.2 billion initiative to alleviate the strain of long-term health care. That proposal came on top of renewed calls for Congress to expand Medicare coverage for early retirees and laid-off workers, and to pass broad new protections for managed care patients.
'Now is the moment'
"With our budget surplus growing, our economy expanding, our confidence rising, now is the moment for this generation to meet our historic responsibility to the 21st century," Clinton said.
Under the president's plan, tax incentives and new federal policies would be marshaled to help the disabled enter the work force; $1 billion would be dedicated to move 200,000 people from welfare to work; and new tax credits would be offered to employers to help more than 44 million adults obtain the literacy skills they need to succeed.
Federal tobacco lawsuit
The only tax hike was a proposed increase of the federal cigarette tax by 55 cents a pack. Clinton also strayed from his prepared text to announce that the Justice Department is preparing to sue the tobacco industry for the feder- al cost of treating smoking-related illnesses.
On the international front, Clinton proposed a broad new round of trade negotiations to advance the cause of open markets. The president also proposed a $108 million initiative to spur U.S. manufacturing exports and tough new steps to protect the American steel industry from cheap steel allegedly being dumped illegally on the global market.
The president asked Congress to increase funding by 70 percent over the next five years for the administration's program to secure the crumbling nuclear arsenal in Russia and other nations that once made up the Soviet Union. The $4.2 billion would be used to dismantle nuclear warheads, secure nuclear materials, including 50 tons of plutonium, tighten export controls in the former Soviet Union and put 8,000 nuclear weapons scientists to work on civilian science projects.
At home, Clinton asked for nearly $3 billion to counter threats from chemical and biological weapon threats and "cyber" attacks on the country's domestic computer infrastructure, which runs everything from the nation's power grid to its airlines. The president demanded that the Senate act "without delay" to ratify the international nuclear test ban.
More defense spending
And he proposed a six-year, sustained increase in defense spending that would ratchet up military spending by $110 billion, with a $12 billion increase in next year's funding alone. Most of that money would be dedicated to military preparedness, modernizing the military arsenal and bolstering pay and benefits, with a 4.4 percent pay increase slated for 2000.
"We are the heirs of a legacy of bravery represented in every community of America by millions of veterans," said Clinton, as he weighed into political territory that is jealously guarded by Republicans. "America's defenders today stand ready at a moment's notice to go where comforts are few and dangers are many, to do what needs to be done as no one else can.
"They always come through for America," Clinton concluded to riotous applause. "We must come through for them."
50,000 new police
Seeking to sustain the credit for the country's falling crime rate, Clinton came forward last night with a new round of crime-fighting proposals. They included spending nearly $1.3 billion to hire, train and equip 50,000 new police officers, $215 million to keep prisoners and ex-convicts off drugs; reinstating the five-day waiting period for handgun purchases; banning violent juvenile criminals from buying guns for life, and requiring federally licensed firearms dealers to include child safety locks with every handgun sold.
Finishing on the optimistic note on which he began, Clinton concluded: "Perhaps in the daily press of events, in the clash of controversy, we don't see our own time for what it truly is -- a new dawn for America."
Pub Date: 1/20/99