Clinton challenges Republicans

By Leo Arennert Scripps Howard News Service Published:

With only 38 legislative days left, the president set the stage for a final round of partisan brinksmanship by laying out a 10-point agenda of "must" bills, which Republicans intend to either scrap or vastly dilute to their own specifications.

In a buoyant mood after his trip to China, Clinton kicked off an intensive lobbying campaign to twist arms on Capitol Hill even as he expands his domestic travel itinerary to campaign and raise money for Democrats.

"Congress can choose partisanship or it can choose progress," he said. "Congress must decide."

Congressional Republicans wasted no time in responding to the challenge. "The president surely knows that Congress is already moving legislation on education, health care and taxes," said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., a member of the House GOP leadership. "We look forward to working with him when he receives the bills."

Asked about Clinton's comment that Congress can choose either partisanship or progress, Cox responded, "That's true for the president as well."

Clinton announced that he will briefly set aside his domestic chores to travel to Moscow in early September for a summit with Russian President Boris Yeltsin _ despite the administration's disappointment that the Russian Parliament has yet to ratify the START 2 nuclear arms reduction treaty.

For months, Clinton had linked the Moscow trip to the ratification of START 2, with hopes of using the summit to promptly negotiate a follow-up START 3 treaty that would slash nuclear arsenals by 80 percent from Cold War levels.

But with the Kremlin casting a wary eye on Clinton's journey to China and Russia sliding into ever-deeper economic distress, the president decided that a Moscow summit might help repair frayed U.S.-Russian relations and bolster Yeltsin's stock.

In the meantime, Clinton made it clear Monday he will pour all his energies into domestic problems _ with health care as his ace card for the November campaign.

As a curtain-raiser for this strategy, he ordered Social Security and Medicare officials to start an immediate outreach program to inform more than 3 million low-income seniors and people with disabilities that they are entitled to have the government pay their Medicare premiums and other out-of-pocket health-care costs.

Under last year's balanced budget agreement, this benefit was extended to 8 million Americans with incomes up to 35 percent above the poverty line. But only 5 million so far are receiving the aid, leaving the rest unnecessarily liable for $525 a year in health-care deductions from Social Security checks.

"We need to get to the last 3 million that aren't being covered now," Clinton said.

His new initiative dovetails with his broader push for a "patients' bill of rights" to give all Americans enrolled in managed-care programs stronger guarantees that insurers won't curtail treatment options to maximize profits.

Clinton said he's ready to work with lawmakers of both parties and use his bully pulpit to advance the nation's interests. "Nowhere is that need greater than our mission to provide quality health care for every American," he said.

On another public health front, Clinton urged Congress to revive his tobacco control bill to discourage teen smoking, which has been blocked by Republicans in the Senate.

The president also ticked off several other end-of-session priorities, including:

_ Setting aside a growing budget surplus, pending action next year to shore up Social Security.

_ A major education package that includes hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes, modernizing schools, setting higher academic standards, expanding Head Start, offering more reading help to third-graders and expanding access to college.

_ An $18 billion allocation to the International Monetary Fund, which has been depleting its reserves with massive bailouts of financially troubled Asian economies.

_ A juvenile-crime bill to crack down on gangs, guns and drugs.

_ Reform of the Internal Revenue Service and campaign-finance rules.

_ Bills to help expand trade with Africa and the Caribbean.

To enhance the prospects of enacting at least some of these proposals, Clinton said he'd be willing to wait until next year to get "fast track" authority to negotiate new global and regional trade agreements _ an item opposed by many members of his own party who fear loss of jobs to poorer countries.

Congressional Democrats believe many of Clinton's "must" priorities, particularly on health care and education, will be political winners in November if they get sidetracked on Capitol Hill. Democrats already are gearing up to run against a "do-nothing" Congress.

Republicans are countering with an agenda focused on tax cuts, financed with the government's new surplus. GOP leaders also are planning trimmed-down versions of the tobacco bill and "patients' bill of rights."

But in his first post-China working day back at the White House, Clinton sounded an urgent note that time is quickly running out for both parties to find compromises.

"We're exactly halfway through the baseball season, but we're already in the ninth inning of this congressional session," he said. "With an economy the strongest in a generation, it is extremely tempting to kick back and soak in the good times. But that would be wrong.

"There are still enormous challenges and opportunities on the edge of the 21st century."

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