WASHINGTON -- There were two major messages President Clinton offered last night -- the substance of his address and the notion that he can still be a forceful leader. Maryland lawmakers said they received both messages, loud and clear.
"I think what he did do tonight is show why it is that he is the president and why he's so successful," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat. "A few weeks ago, when I saw him, he said, 'I guess I've got to go into the mouth of the lion.' And I said, 'You're the best I've seen at that.' "
Clinton offered a sweeping array of programs -- from new educational standards, to new retirement initiatives, to new defense programs -- with enough ideological flexibility to give all Maryland lawmakers something to latch onto.
"We have a mixed bag here. There are some wonderful ideas," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who is often a sharp critic of Clinton. "We can work on them." This from a man who -- along with Maryland Republicans Wayne T. Gilchrest and Roscoe G. Bartlett -- voted to impeach the president in December.
"Those are the issues that affect people, and when they wake up in the morning, that's what they care about," said Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat. "It's an ambitious agenda that he put before the Congress, and he asked the Republicans to work with him. I think that's what the American people wanted him to do."
According to Marylanders in Congress, Clinton dispelled any question of whether it was appropriate for him to deliver his address even as he is on trial in the Senate.
"He is willing to grapple with the issues, quite frankly, that are compelling to our community," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore-area Democrat who has conferred with White House advisers on Social Security issues, lauded Clinton and said the president has not lost his ability to lead on important public issues.
"This person is providing leadership in the problems this nation is confronting," said Cardin.
Yet Clinton has never been at a loss for friends from Maryland.
Few Congressional Republicans reached out to shake hands with Clinton as he entered the chamber, or stood to cheer his less flashy proposals. But Montgomery County Rep. Constance A. Morella, one of just a handful of House Republicans to vote against impeachment, chatted with Clinton briefly, and applauded nearly alone among GOP lawmakers for his reference to the Y2K problem.
"How do you dismiss or distance yourself with comments about the need for education, or the need for long-term care for the elderly, or the concept of working out free and open and fair trade treaties with other countries?" asked Morella. "I think it was important, now more than ever, that he address those issues."
Said Hoyer of Clinton: "He is determined to lead, notwithstanding the controversy that surrounds him. What he's saying is, 'Look, America, we need to concentrate on the problems that affect American families.' "
Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican, said Clinton offered a useful, comprehensive agenda that will help frame debate in the House in coming months.
"I was not thinking about Mr. Clinton's impeachment process," he said. "I was not thinking about Mr. Clinton's hope to win back the favor of the American people."
Nonetheless, Gilchrest expressed skepticism about Clinton's willingness to expand the reach of federal authority. For example, Gilchrest, a former civics teacher, was wary of Clinton's educational initiatives, some of which would make federal funds for schools dependent on meeting new performance standards.
"We have to be careful for the federal government not to tell the local school districts, which may need to pay for other things than new teachers, how to use those funds," Gilchrest said.
Ehrlich praised the president's proposal to lift the cap on earnings for senior citizens who receive Social Security benefits and to provide new money for defense programs such as ballistic missile research. But he said Clinton sought to extend federal authority into areas where it did not belong.
"Some of the education proposals are wonderful ideas, but they belong in Annapolis, and they belong in Towson and Bel Air," he said.
"It's a little more to the center than the last two," Ehrlich added, referring to Clinton's prior addresses to Congress, "although underlying it is a lot of dollars. Some of these initiatives are terrific and we can work on them."
Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes praised Clinton's willingness to invest the projected federal surplus to maintain a string of strong economic indicators. Inflation, poverty and unemployment are all down, Sarbanes said, and the new Clinton programs will help keep them that way.
Added Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, a Democrat and firm Clinton ally: "Bill Clinton has risen to the occasion each and every time. He has shown a great deal of focus. The American public has heard from its president."
David L. Greene contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/20/99