Speech Moves Clinton Closer to G.O.P. on Social Security, but Fights Loom

By: The Associated Press
The New York Times, January 20, 1999

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is making dramatic concessions to Republicans on revamping Social Security, but the spotty GOP response to his State of the Union address shows that bitter fights lie ahead on the retirement program, tax cuts and White House plans for higher spending.

Barely six hours after the Senate ended another day in Clinton's impeachment trial, the president strode into the House chamber and confidently delivered a 77-minute speech laden with proposals ranging from more defense spending to helping communities fight pollution.

Clinton also announced the Justice Department would sue the tobacco industry, and that he would again seek a tax increase on cigarettes, this time 55 cents a pack. It drew an icy response from Republicans, as it did last year.

A centerpiece of Clinton's speech -- a plan to let the government invest some Social Security's money in the stock market -- drew fire today from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who said it could hurt the economy. The influential Greenspan said the money would be better used to reduce the national debt.

Nonetheless, many Republicans said they sensed chances for accommodation this year on Social Security, defense, education and patients' rights. Still, GOP leaders emphasized the differences that remained -- including Clinton's omission of tax cuts as a way to use federal surpluses projected to total an enormous $4.4 trillion over the next 15 years.

``A $4 trillion surplus, and not a penny for tax cuts?'' House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said.

``I didn't work this hard to get a balanced budget to ... spend it all on new programs,'' said the Senate Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said today that Clinton ``has stepped out smartly with a very, very creative, and I think, a sound, plan'' to safeguard Social Security. Interviewed on ABC's ``Good Morning America,'' Gephardt said he expects the president to flesh out his proposal in the next few weeks and called on House and Republican leaders to schedule hearings as soon as possible so the problem can be resolved this year.

Polls indicated more than three-quarters of Americans surveyed approved of what Clinton said. And his job-approval ratings rose after his speech -- to 66 percent in an ABC News poll, from 63 percent a week earlier, and to 72 percent in a CBS News poll, up from 67 percent. He registered similar gains after his address a year ago. The polls have error margins of 4.5 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Clinton's audience on the House floor -- Democrats sitting to his right, Republicans to his left -- reacted throughout as if listening to two different speeches. Democrats lustily cheered his entrance, and led the way in interrupting his address 95 times with applause.

Republicans were unusually quiet, with many often not responding to what might normally be GOP applause lines, like Clinton's prediction of budget surpluses for the next 25 years. Small numbers of them didn't attend, and many who did conceded that it felt eerie listening to a president whom their party has pushed to the brink of removal from office.

``Of course it was awkward,'' Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., said. ``But does that mean it shouldn't have happened? Not necessarily.''

As Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott left the chamber, photographers overheard him asking a companion whether Clinton had ``no shame.''

Clinton made no mention of the sex and cover-up case that led to his impeachment and imperils his presidency.

Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, sat side by side looking pained and bored, applauding only for spectators whom Clinton introduced, such as civil rights figure Rosa Parks and Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa.

``I didn't mean to look grim,'' Armey said later. ``Obviously, we were all concerned about how we were going to respond to the president, and I had made up my mind ahead of time I would applaud everything he said that I thought was good for the country and where I thought he actually meant it.''

Yet there was periodic applause from other Republicans, including new House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. -- in his first State of the Union sitting on the rostrum behind the president -- and from Lott.

Early on, Clinton cited Hastert's call for bipartisanship and said, ``Mr. Speaker, let's do exactly that.''

Clinton then used his remarks to take some giant steps toward GOP demands for shoring up Social Security for the baby boomers, which he said would keep the program afloat until 2055.

Rather than insisting that all federal surpluses be left untouched until the Social Security problem is resolved, as he said last year, he said only 62 percent of the money -- $2.7 trillion over 15 years -- was needed for the program.

Many Republicans have insisted that surpluses are going to be big enough to help Social Security and cut taxes, too. Clinton's new plan moves that debate forward.

For the first time, Clinton embraced investing up to one-fourth of the new Social Security funds in the stock market -- an idea favored by many Republicans. Clinton wants a government board to make the investment decisions. GOP lawmakers would prefer that individuals have their own accounts and make their own investment choices.

Clinton also endorsed giving part of the surplus to individuals to invest in new, personal retirement accounts, another idea many Republicans have pushed.

``I reach out my hand to all of you in both houses and both parties and ask that we join together in saying to the American people: We will save Social Security now,'' he said.

Clinton wants to use the rest of the surpluses to strengthen Medicare and for defense and domestic programs. He would spend billions for new programs in child care, education, crime-fighting, the environment and the military. He also called for raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour over two years to $6.15.

Republicans prefer using the leftover money for a 10 percent, across-the-board income tax cut.

And the GOP has pushed its own bills for schools, anti-crime programs and defense. Both sides want to give managed-care patients more power in dealing with health-care providers. That gives the two parties common ground, many Republicans said.

``I was very energized by much of what I heard,'' said Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif.


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