WASHINGTON -- With the strain of impeachment hanging over the Capitol, Democrats as well as Republicans said they were overwhelmed by the barrage of new spending programs President Clinton arrayed before them last night.
"There was more substance, more innovation in this policy wonk speech than in all the others he's ever given put together," said Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting Washington delegate who is an enthusiastic supporter of the president. "He wore me out with it."
"It was fantastic; he has absolutely no conscience when it comes to spending money," Jeffords said. "He's always trying to rally the spirit of the country, but this time I think he was particularly aiming at boosting those old polls of his. I think he probably accomplished both."
Republican leaders of Congress were mostly eager to join Clinton in a brief time-out to demonstrate they, too, are doing "the people's business" -- even while the impeachment trial proceeds.
They welcomed the change of subject -- especially to proposals for removing earnings limits for Social Security and increasing defense spending -- and they declared themselves eager to roll up their sleeves and get at it.
"We need to work together to move this through the process," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who wants the economic package to include a 10 percent income tax rate cut. "I'm not prepared to reject his proposals out of hand; some of them will very likely go through."
Democrats rejoiced at Clinton getting a chance to make his own case -- not only for survival in office but for the continued vitality of his presidency.
Though Clinton never mentioned the impeachment process, his message was clearly that the nation would be better served by leaving him in office.
"It's a powerful opportunity for him," said Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who has been among Clinton's most loyal defenders. "All 100 of his jurors will be in the chamber.
"The president always does well in trying times, and there's no more trying time than this one," Breaux added.
Republican response to the president's speech was more polite than heartfelt.
Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican who arrived in the House chamber three hours before the speech to save an aisle seat so he could greet Clinton as he entered the chamber, said he had almost no competition.
"It was nothing like past years," Foley said. "Until about a half hour before the speech, I thought no one else on our side was going to come."
Even so, an attempt by some House Republicans to engineer a massive boycott of the State of the Union address fell flat, as lawmakers -- who gave Clinton the distinction of being the first elected president ever impeached -- thought they might benefit as much as he from a show of graciousness.
There were no lack of potential applause lines: Clinton's speech included nearly every Democratic pet program, from raising the minimum wage, to building new schools, to expanding Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Democratic Sen. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey was particularly pleased about Clinton's proposal to protect open space. "As a senator from a state where open space is at a premium, I believe the president's initiative is important for preserving the nation's natural land legacies," he said.
Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Senate Republican whip, said it was no wonder the Democrats were pleased.
"Ninety percent of what he said was aimed at them," Nickles said.
"It was kind of weird to be sitting in the Senate in the afternoon as a juror on impeachment and then listening at night to a speech that should have been given to the Democratic National Committee."
"I don't think it'll have any impact," he said. "My guess is everybody is going to plow ahead with impeachment and hopefully we'll get it done before too long."
Clinton's proposal for a major increase in defense spending was designed to appeal to legislators in both parties.
But Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska complained that there seemed to be much less to Clinton's plan than promised.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff had expected to get $110 billion in new money over six years, Stevens said, and Clinton promised that amount last night, beginning with $12 billion this year.
But Stevens contended the president's proposal actually includes only about $4 billion in new money for this year, which would shrink the $110 total projected over six years.
Clinton's total is inflated, Stevens said, by predicting the most optimistic possible result from a variety of economic variables.
"This isn't even smoke and mirrors; it's all mirrors," Stevens complained.
Pub Date: 1/20/99