Clinton Rediscovers Ambition in a 'Newer Deal'

In a series of safety-net proposals this week, the White House shows it's thinking big again.

This week has been President Clinton's attempt to rebut those critics who said that the most activist items on his "To Do" list all involved walking his dog.

In a rapid-fire series of announcements touching on everything from a proposed expansion of Medicare to easier access to higher education, the president has attempted to define a 1998 agenda that is more ambitious than the small-step items that have so far dominated his second term. It's not exactly the New Deal - but it might be called Newer Deal Lite.

It may also be a first shot at defining Washington's discourse in the new post-budget-deficit era. Freed from the struggle to contain Uncle Sam's red ink, Democrats and Republicans are reengaging in that most basic of American political arguments: What's the proper role and size of the federal government?

Thus Mr. Clinton's announcements are "an attempt to seize the initiative, to get his agenda attention as opposed to the other guy's," says David Rohde, a political science professor at Michigan State University.

It's still an open question as to how far anyone's D.C. initiatives will get. Conventional wisdom has held that 1998 will be a pretty dull year inside the Beltway, at least insofar as real policy goes. The budget's been balanced, goes this theory, and with elections coming up most lawmakers will be focused on home-state campaigns.

Congress isn't scheduled to come back into full session until late this month. And leaders plan to flee the city in early October. If you count up the number of work days, lawmakers will be hard-pressed just to get all their basic appropriations work done, according to an analysis by Burson-Marsteller budget expert Stan Collender.

Good news

But good budget news continues to change Washington's frame of reference. Earlier this week, Clinton said that the proposed 1999 budget he will release in a few weeks will be balanced - bringing the government into the black three years before the date called for in last year's historic fiscal agreement.

With some experts predicting that even '98 will see a US surplus, both Democrats and Republicans are suddenly blinking in the sunshine, confronting a new fiscal era that may allow greater freedom to propose and dispose than they've seen in years.

Thus Clinton's policy blitz. In recent days he's proposed everything from an increase in the Peace Corps, to more money for food safety, to $21 billion in new spending for child care and the largest-ever expansion of the Medicare program.

The Medicare initiative is the centerpiece of his new agenda. It would allow those who retire at age 62, and workers who lose their jobs at age 55, to join the huge government health-care system by paying a premium of $300 to $400 per month. The proposal targets people who do, indeed, often have trouble finding affordable health care, say experts. But for many, even $300 may be too much.

"The whole notion of making health care more accessible is a good one," notes Eric Kingson, a Boston College professor of social work, "but the groups targeted are not on average in position to take advantage of this proposal."

Inevitably, pressure would develop for government subsidies, complain many Republicans. And thus a Medicare expansion which the administration claims is revenue-neutral could end up as an expensive Big Government entitlement expansion.

A similar dynamic could affect the child-care proposal, say GOP critics. That plan counts on $10 billion from a settlement with tobacco firms to help defray its cost. What if that settlement doesn't occur, or doesn't produce that amount of money? What happens then?

GOP has different ideas

Republicans have other ideas about what the government should focus on in the post-deficit age - and they don't typically involve an expansion of Uncle Sam's reach. They revolve around tax cuts, the policy heart of the GOP belief in limiting government as much as possible.

In his own agenda-proposing speech earlier this week, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia said that any excess cash should be used to defray the accumulated national debt and give the American people a small tax cut every year.

"We ought to talk about modernizing, privatizing, downsizing, and prioritizing government so we can reduce the [tax] burden on the American people to no more than 25 percent," said Speaker Gingrich.

It remains to be seen how the GOP-led Congress will react to the agenda list preferred by the folks from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It may just have a few hearings on Medicare expansion, then let the subject die. The GOP leaders mind that election-year pressure from moderate members of the party causes them to take a harder look at Clinton's ideas.

Whatever they do, they should keep in mind that today's good fiscal weather won't last, say analysts. Medicare and Social Security are predicted to dip toward bankruptcy in the early decades of next century.

"It's my hope that President Clinton and Republican leaders will resist the temptation [to divvy up a surplus] and look down the road to the impending entitlement crisis," says David Canon, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

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