Clinton Agenda Well Under Way

Despite Whitewater, president's priorities set tone in Congress

CONGRESS is in recess. The Clintons are on vacation in California. And the public has the impression that Washington is preoccupied with Whitewater anyway.

But the Washington mice are not exactly at play. In fact some major initiatives on the agenda for change President Clinton campaigned on are well under way.

Administration officials - eager to stop the slow erosion of public support for their health-care initiative - between them have 70 health-care events on their schedules during this Easter break. The Clintons will hit the road and rejoin the effort next week, while Congress is still out.

Health care is the biggest initiative of many that Clinton has under way now in Congress. Others are reaching critical stages this spring as well.

``There's a lot of momentum going. We don't see any evidence of anything slowing down,'' says Patrick Griffin, the chief White House lobbyist.

In his first year, Clinton had a success record at getting legislation through rivaled only by the first-term records of Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson. Gridlock broke. But he did that by accepting the agenda of congressional Democrats, says Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University.

``In terms of reversing direction [of government policy], his success is less clear,'' Dr. Wayne says. ``You can't have a revolution with 43 percent of the vote.'' Or with an overhanging budget deficit, or with deep public skepticism of government.

The agenda before Congress now, however, bears the stronger stamp of Clinton and encompasses more sweeping policy changes.

Here are some of the major initiatives:

* Health care. The big one. If Congress passes a bill that meets the major criteria set out by Clinton, beginning with universal health insurance coverage, then Clinton will have made a historic-scale impact on national life in a league with the creation of Social Security at the end of the Great Depression.

A bill that meets most of Clinton's standards, but in a very different way, has passed a House Ways and Means subcommittee. When Congress returns, the full committee will take it up under the guidance of chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, who is expected to craft it into a shape more likely to pass on the House floor. The House is unlikely to send a bill to the Senate before late this summer.

* Welfare. Only about 2 percent of the population receives Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main welfare program. But long-term dependence on welfare is widely viewed as a key part of the distress in America's cities. Conservatives and many moderates now see welfare as a dysfunctional system that traps many of its clients.

``Two years and out'' turns out to cost far more than welfare as we know it. Clinton has not quite figured out how to pay for the extra child care, training, and subsidized jobs, but Mr. Griffin says that the administration will submit a bill between mid-April and early May.

* Education. Clinton stepped out of vacation mode yesterday to sign into law a bill that sets six national standards of achievement for schools and their students. (Signing, Page 2.) The federal government has a minor role in funding public schools, which are primarily a local and state responsibility. But these standards - all voluntary - are intended to act as a measuring stick to direct and motivate educators.

* Crime. When fear of crime tops the polls, pols pay attention, even if the small federal role in violent crime makes action mainly symbolic. Major provisions run from mandatory life in prison for three-time violent offenders to a Police Corps scholarship fund - a sort of ROTC for police.

The House will sweep its many crime bill provisions into an omnibus bill as soon as Congress returns, then House and Senate members will reconcile their bills in conference committee.

* Lobbying. Public cynicism about politics is deep, and the notion that special interests run Washington is widespread. So both chambers have voted themselves no more free lunches - or any other gifts from lobbyists. House and Senate members are ready to go to conference committee to reconcile their very similar bills. The law would also expand disclosure of who lobbyists are working for.

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