Democrats Fashion Contract Of Their Own With America

IF imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, House Republicans should be feeling sincerely flattered.

On the model of the House GOP's Contract With America, Democrats in both the House and the Senate are drafting their own party's "agenda" for the future. The aim, as with the contract, is to let voters know what the party stands for, not just what it stands against.

The Senate's draft agenda, called "Expanding America's Greatness," reads mostly like a hit parade of standard Democratic fare: invest in education, defend the environment, and fight for workers' rights, to name a few. Just as the GOP contract ignored the abortion issue, so does the Senate Democrats' draft agenda.

Some agenda items are already central Democratic pressure points - and so popular with the public that they are picking up Republican support. The first proposal on the list is to raise the minimum wage. The issue is a winner for Democrats in opinion polls - and now an increasingly tough one for the Republican leadership to try to squash, since a coalition of 14 moderate House Republicans jumped on the bandwagon Wednesday and proposed an increase in the minimum wage of a full dollar over two years. The Democratic proposal is for a 90-cent raise, from $4.25 to $5.15, over two years.

Senate Democrats have also bought into a seven-year balanced budget, a position the party came into only relatively recently, and reluctantly. But there it is in black and white in the agenda.

The House plan is still open for discussion. House Democrats will hold a retreat here today to hash over the details. As with the Senate version, the House Democrats' theme is economic security - handling issues from education to pensions to encouraging good corporate citizenship.

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says the two house caucuses will have little debate when they sit down to fold their two plans into one agenda.

"The problem is that the Democrats have a tendency to be wordy," said Senator Dodd in an interview, smiling broadly. "We're trying to put it in a form so that people aren't going to have to spend an hour reading this thing twice to understand what you're talking about. There's really no debate, there's just some prioritizing."

But from a campaign point of view, does the exercise really make sense? Republican strategist Eddie Mahe thinks not. He says the Democrats of 1996 are in a fundamentally different position than were the Republicans of 1994. In other words, the Democrats still control the White House and have a sitting president who's running for reelection. In 1994, the Republicans were in charge of nothing.

"The problem is they have absolutely no practice running with an incumbent president" at the top of the ticket, says Mr. Mahe. "We could have told them the president sets the agenda."

Clinton administration officials have given input on the agenda, but it remains to be seen how President Clinton will deal with the final product. While Clinton and congressional Democrats usually sing from the same score - pension portability is a big item for both, for example - they also have had their differences. International trade treaties represent a major clash point.

Clinton will also be steering clear of some parts of the country - and of some congressional districts - when the campaign gets into full swing. It may be that the congressional Democrats are trying to set themselves off a bit from the president and his own agenda. Democrats in Congress seem much more interested in talking about corporate fat cats than does Clinton. While the Democratic agenda contains proposals to reward "good corporate citizens" with tax concessions, Clinton is putting more emphasis on tax breaks for the middle class and allowing Americans to tap into individual retirement accounts to pay for a first home or a college education.

Democratic pollsters were consulted for the project - but, said one, "it has not been an exercise in finding only issues that score above 60 percent in the polls." Still, polling data are keeping the grin on Dodd's face. At a Monitor breakfast, he highlighted a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, which showed the public had more confidence in Clinton than in the Republicans on several issues: the economy, taxes, health care, welfare, and education. The exception was the budget deficit, on which Clinton and the GOP were tied at 42 percent.

How will the Democrats unveil their long-awaited manifesto? Dodd doesn't know for sure. But he doesn't want to see a rerun of the Republican scenario from 1994, when most GOP House candidates stood in front of the Capitol and signed the contract en masse.

"I'd like to see something more creative," he says, "so we don't run the risk of comparison."

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