WASHINGTON — `SENATOR Bentsen would very much like to be president of the United States," says a friend. "He is considering a race, though he has done nothing to actively explore it." Lloyd Bentsen, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, remains a focus of speculation in the 1992 Democratic presidential campaign. But the senator himself remains elusive:
"Listen, I'm a happy man where I am," he told a group of reporters at breakfast this week. "I have absolutely no plans" to run for president, he insists.
Even so, the Texas senator quickly recites what he says will be the most critical issues for Democrats next year.
The party must nominate someone with a solid record on national defense, he says. And at home, the party must address the growing needs of the beleaguered middle class.
Bentsen notes that during the 1980s, the income of middle-class Americans went up by only 3 percent. During the same period, the real income of the most wealthy Americans rose 89 percent. Middle-income Americans are struggling to keep up with their bills by sending both parents to work and taking after-hours jobs. Even in the days of "Rosie the Riveter" during World War II, Americans didn't have such a high percentage of women working, the senator observes.
To help these hard-pressed families, Bentsen would focus on a number of problems, including:
* Costly health care. "It's a critical problem," he says. "You're seeing costs rise about 17 percent [each year], substantially above the inflation rate." Medical costs now gobble up 12 precent or 13 percent of the nation's gross national product.
Small businesses are among the hardest hit by rising health costs. Many firms are either reducing coverage - by dropping dependents, for example - or eliminating coverage altogether.
* Low savings. Americans are "saving between 4 cents and 5 cents out of every dollar earned," he observes. "Japanese are saving 16 cents out of every dollar earned."
As a result, Americans are losing their competitive edge. The Japanese, because of greater savings, can invest twice as much per employee in new machinery and equipment. Japanese plants, on average, are only 10 years old, while US plants average 17. "Even in a time of recession, they're expanding," Bentsen warns.
Another important issue touching American workers will be a proposed free-trade treaty with Mexico. Bentsen wants a treaty; but he also wants assurances that the United States will be protected from rapid loss of jobs and environmental degradation. Texas fruit and vegetable growers, for example, may need a "substantial" period of transition to prepare for low-cost farm produce from Mexico.
But Bentsen favors a treaty as a workable way of lifting Mexico's burdens of poverty and unemployment. A richer Mexico would buy more US goods and create jobs here, he says.
Meanwhile, Mexican officials indicate they are increasingly sensitive to concerns about the environment. Recently, they shut down a heavily polluting refinery in Mexico City, even though that action threw 4,500 people out of jobs.
"That's pretty gutsy when you have high unemployment," Bentsen says.