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Clinton may have public on his side in budget battle


WASHINGTON -- In this year's looming federal budget fight, the chief ingredients are already clear: The Republicans in Congress have the votes to frustrate President Clinton, but he has the rhetorical high ground.

His proposal to use two-thirds of the projected federal budget surplus of $79.3 billion to shore up Social Security and Medicare cannot be effectively challenged by the Republicans, long and successfully accused by the Democrats of harboring desires to privatize one or both. Elderly citizens and baby boomers-- the polls consistently show -- have as a chief concern "saving" the government's most important social programs.

For the middle class

So the primary budget battleground is likely to be over the rest of the surplus, with the president calling for a real increase in defense spending for the first time in about 15 years and modest new spending on an array of rather small domestic initiatives aimed primarily at middle-income voters.

The Republicans -- typically proponents of a strong defense -- can't balk at a boost in military spending either. So the GOP will attack Mr. Clinton's proposed spending for domestic issues and push for tax cuts -- this time a proposed 10-percent, across-the-board reduction.

In last year's budget negotiations, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was sharply criticized by traditionalists within his party for not keeping tax cuts front and center, though polls indicate that their appeal to voters has lessened considerably in the current era of a humming economy, low inflation and low unemployment.

While renewing the Republican pitch for tax cuts, the party's leaders in Congress have already begun to attack Mr. Clinton's proposed new domestic spending for such things as more police, more teachers, more school construction and modernization, more family assistance for long-term elderly and disabled care and a number of environmental initiatives.

As usual, the attempt continues to pin the old tax-and-spend label on Mr. Clinton in spite of the fact that his budget would boost federal spending only 2.2 percent over the current fiscal year's total, and that his new spending proposals are accompanied by offsetting new taxes on the tobacco and insurance industries and other businesses.

As in all proposed budgets, Mr. Clinton has factored in new revenue -- such as $35 billion more over five years from the tobacco industry alone -- that he can't count on. The Republicans in Congress, in league with the tobacco lobby, blocked his tobacco bill last year and stand ready to do so again this time around.

Mr. Clinton will argue in the coming budget fight that he has remained faithful to his 1995 State of the Union proclamation, in the wake of the Republican takeover of Congress for the first time in 40 years, that "the era of big government is over." But House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer has already described the Clinton budget as "something for everyone . . . a throwback to the days when the government tried to solve problems by raising taxes and throwing money at problems."

Balanced budget woes

In a sense, the Republicans are immobilized by their theme song for years that a balanced budget would be the answer to all of the nation's economic woes. They probably never dreamed it would be achieved under a Democratic president, who could then take credit for it and for the unforeseen surpluses that followed it.

The Republicans have, to be sure, attempted to claim that they jammed the balanced budget deal down Mr. Clinton's throat. But so far it hasn't sold with voters to the extent that the long-held GOP argument that a balanced budget would automatically lead to sharp tax cuts is being bought.

The domestic goodies Mr. Clinton is holding out in his new budget aren't particularly extravagant, but they may be appealing enough to comfortable voters to keep the Republican tax-cutters in Congress at bay again this year.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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