Democrats Offer Own Version of US Future To Win Back Center

THERE was no Republican-style hoopla on the steps of the Capitol. No party leaders pledged themselves to term limits. But an influential Democratic policy group yesterday proposed an alternative to the highly ballyhooed Republican ``Contract With America.''

The Democratic plan - while not matching the GOP tit for tat - offers a broad strategy to help embattled Democrats win back the political center that they lost overwhelmingly in the 1994 elections.

The latest proposals were drafted by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), a think tank associated with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The plan will serve as the basis for a forum today that includes top Democratic leaders: Vice President Al Gore Jr., Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, and five senators.

The purpose of this alternative contract ``is to alert the Republicans that we intend to engage them in hand-to-hand combat in the battle of ideas,'' says Al From, president of the DLC.

Mr. From called the GOP plan ``bromides and bumper-sticker programs.... Our ideas offer new, different, and real reform.''

The plan lays out 10 proposals that fall under four broad themes:

* Restoring the American dream. Three proposals call for cutting subsidies to industries and investing in education and infrastructure; passing a ``GI bill'' for working Americans who need job retraining; and expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement to any new democracy willing to abide by its rules.

* Reweaving the social fabric. Three proposals suggest decentralized, work-based welfare reform; a national campaign to reduce teenage pregnancy and support young, unwed mothers; and market-based low-cost housing and limited occupancy in public housing.

* Inventing new forms of governance. Two proposals advocate a ``federalism convention'' to shift power from Washington to the states; and a modest, market-based approach to health-care reform and fundamental changes to entitlements such as Medicare.

* Strengthening US global leadership. Two proposals outline strategies for worldwide eradication of nuclear weapons and of commercial use of plutonium by 2045, the end of the nuclear century; and a total reassessment of US military needs in the post-cold-war era.

The Democratic plan centers mainly on the federal budget, though it also delves into other areas, such as welfare reform.

In its contract, the GOP has called for a balanced-budget amendment, line-item veto, and middle-class and capital-gains tax cuts without detailing what would be trimmed to pay for these measures.

The White House, eager not to be overrun by the House agenda but wary of bloating the deficit, is reportedly devising a more modest scheme, including a middle-class tax cut paid for by cuts in government agencies.

Robert Shapiro, vice president of PPI, suggests that one alternative would be government savings of $225 billion over five years by cutting 68 ``unnecessary'' government subsidies to such industries as oil and agribusiness. These savings, he argues, could be invested in job retraining, education, tax relief for working families, and deficit reduction.

Entitlements are politically riskier to play with, but Mr. Shapiro argues these programs already outpace revenues. He urges bold leadership from the White House in reducing cost-of-living adjustments and adding taxes for wealthy recipients of Medicare.

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