Posted on September 13, 1993 in Washington Watch

In mid-summer, President Clinton emerged victorious from the Congressional fight over his budget agreement. The White House made significant compromises to secure passage of the bill, but the final outcome did contain the essential principles to which the President was committed: reductions in the projected federal budget deficit by nearly $500 million over the next five years; taxes increases that will fall most heavily on the wealthiest Americans; and maintaining and even increasing essential social programs.

Despite the slight margin of victory—the changes introduced by the budget were important enough for Time Magazine to herald the bill as “overturning the Reagan era.”

Not everyone was satisfied, however. A Democratic critic charged that the President had compromised too much and had not shown enough courage because he had not stood firm and demanded that Congress accept more of his original budget proposal. Clinton responded angrily, noting that he had shown courage by addressing difficult issues that had been ignored during the past three Presidential terms.

This is the dilemma now facing the Clinton Administration. The President has a far-reaching and courageous agenda which calls for a major overhaul of almost every area of public policy. But, having won the 1992 election by with only 43% of the vote and leading a deeply divided Democratic Party, Clinton lacks the mandate and the automatic vote in Congress to pass his programs without a struggle.

To his credit, however, Bill Clinton has continued to push forward despite this political handicap. At that same time, he has shown a willingness to compromise in order to salvage at least a modest portion of his program.

Yet, if the first six months and the summer budget fight were tough, the agenda that the President will be presenting to Congress in the autumn and winter will be even tougher.

In order of importance, the two most significant challenges that the President will send to Congress will be a wide-ranging proposal to provide comprehensive health care for all Americans; and a bill to secure Congressional acceptance of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which would create an economic union between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

1) Health care
Health care became a defining issue in the 1992 Presidential campaign. With 37 million Americans without health insurance and medical costs spiraling out of control, the issue affects the life of every American.

After meeting for months, a Presidential Task Force headed by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton presented the White House with a draft proposal which is being refined even now. It has not yet been made public, but the White House has leaked out several parts of the proposal in order to build public support and as trial balloons to test public and political reactions.

The basic outlines of the plan are these: it will guarantee health care coverage to all Americans; place an emphasis on preventive care so as to avoid the high cost of later treatments; seek to slow the growth in health care costs through a combination of regulatory reform and a more rational system of health care delivery; and provide a choice of health care programs to all Americans based on their needs. Clinton is touting this program as both necessary in its own right and as a significant step in reducing the federal deficit (of which health care spending is the fastest rising part).

But unlike the budget battle, the White House has made a real effort to secure Republican support for this bill. The proposal is not based on the more “socialist” Canadian model, but on the `managed competition’ model, which should hold more appeal for Republicans. And the White House has been actively courting and consulting prominent Republican Senators in an effort to win their early support.

The most difficult issue that must be solved before the health care plan can be passed is its cost, and how the Administration plans to raise the needed revenues. “Sin taxes” (on tobacco and alcohol products), further cuts in existing Medicare and Medicaid programs are among the ideas being floated, and they are being rather thoroughly criticized. Even should these measures pass, however, they probably would not be enough to cover all of the new spending the plan will require.

A program as complex and costly as this is bound to provoke intense public and Congressional debate. But health care reform is so desperately needed and so central a part of the President’s program that the Administration will expend significant political resources to secure its passage.

2) NAFTA
The most difficult obstacle to the passage of the health care reform package, however, is not the bill itself, but the fact that it will be before the Congress at the same time as Clinton will be presenting NAFTA for Congressional approval.

NAFTA was negotiated by the Bush Administration, and during the campaign Clinton said that he would only support it if it were amended by side agreements that would protect American jobs, provide job retraining for workers whose jobs move abroad, and address the question of environmental protections. The Administration is now satisfied with the side agreements it has negotiated with Mexico and has brought the plan forward. But opposition to the plan, especially from Democrats, is intense.

While Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and Jesse Jackson—populists on the left and the right—oppose the agreement with charges that it will cost American jobs and cause a rush of U.S. business industry to go to Mexico, weaken environmental protection, etc., the most serious threat to NAFTA is the opposition of organized labor.

Clearly, labor is the most powerful interest group in the Democratic Party. The President is counting on Labor to secure passage of his health care plan, but labor leaders have notified the White House that if they must spend resources fighting NAFTA, they will not have the resources to support health care reform. This is a threat the White House cannot afford to ignore.

Ironically, it is apparent that the major support for NAFTA will come from Republicans who represent business interests that are supporting the bill.

In fact, a recent vote count by a Washington newsletter showed that if NAFTA came to a vote now it would receive 177 votes for and 174 votes against in the House, with the rest undecided. This is far short of the 218 votes needed to pass the bill. But the most disturbing news for the President is that only 70 of the 258 Democrats in the House are supporting NAFTA, while 107 of the 175 Republicans are in support of the measure.

The Democrats in Congress are so divided on NAFTA that while the Speaker of the House (the top-ranking Democrat in the House) supports the plan, the Majority Leader and the Majority Whip (the number two and three most powerful Democrats) have said that they won’t support it. No one can recall a time when any majority leader or Whip have not supported their own President. It will be very awkward, indeed, if Clinton were to win this bill with Republican votes, while at the same time risking the loss of support from influential members and powerful groups in his own party.

Indeed, this issue has so divided the White House that advisors to the President are split. Those who worked with Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign want the President to give priority to health care reform and let NAFTA wait. Those advisors who joined the White House staff from the business community want the President to pursue NAFTA as a priority.

So far, the President seems to want to pursue both at the same time.

And, as if these two battles aren’t enough, the White House has three additional major programs to present to Congress: a Crime Bill, National Service, and the National Performance Review.

3) Crime Bill
The Crime Bill, together with the National Performance Review and NAFTA are important to this President since he is determined to define himself as a “New Democrat.”

While some have sought to challenge Clinton’s early record as liberal, Clinton insists that the overall thrust of his program can’t be defined as either liberal or conservative.

The Crime Bill now before Congress, for example, includes a variety of measures that have been called for by both liberals and conservatives. The Brady Bill (named after Reagan’s press Secretary James Brady who became a champion of handgun control after being wounded in the assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981) places new national restrictions on the purchase of handguns, which has been identified as a liberal cause, is a part of the bill.

But the crime bill also includes a promise of $3.6 billion in new spending on crime programs, with some of the money going to “liberal measures” like drug treatment, and some going to “conservative measures, such as putting an additional 100,000 police officers on the streets. Yet another part of the bill, the notion of military style “boot camps” that will provide retraining for young and first-time offenders, has been a favorite program of conservatives for some years.

4) National Service
National Service is a cause that has been spearheaded for years by Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, an archetypal liberal. Yet the program itself is a mix of liberal and conservative ideas and has a bipartisan coalition behind it. It presents national service not as an obligation for all citizens (which some conservatives oppose), but as a source of new jobs and job training for young people.

The overall goal of the program is to enable students to go to college despite rising tuition costs in return for service in some type of national service, such as work in the police force or as a teacher. Although the Congress reduced Clinton’s initial proposal of $20,000 in tuition aid for two years of service in half (down to $10,000 for two years of service), the program will eventually enable up to 100,000 young Americans to earn money for college in exchange for national service. This is a program with strong appeal to both liberals and conservatives.

5) National Performance Review
The National Performance Review, headed by Vice President Al Gore, proposes to do what the past five Presidents talked about but never did—cut the size of the government, eliminate (or at least severely reduce) waste and streamline government regulations. (For example, while Reagan made this issue a campaign theme, the size of government actually grew during his Administration.)

This is one issue about which there is no partisan disagreement: the U.S. government is too big and it is inefficient. Gore’s plan is divided into four parts, each of which is designed to reverse the stagnating effects of governmental growth of the past thirty years. The White House stressed from the moment of its introduction that the plan is not only a goal in itself, but is a way or restoring people’s confidence in the government—something that is central to Clinton’s entire agenda.

First, there will be a series of strictly regulatory reforms, such as reducing some federal regulations and creating more reasonable guidelines for federal procurement of goods and services. Second, it proposes some elements of competition in order to make agencies perform more efficiently without new regulations. Third, it would provide greater avenues for federal workers to improve their own way do doing things without outside approval or interference. Finally, it would target waste in the government, including an extraordinary call for reducing the federal workforce by 252,000 over five years, which would be the first time it has shrunk in size in 17 years. Overall the plan is designed to save at least $108 billion over the next five years.

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The White House’s ambitious early agenda also includes campaign finance reform (currently before Congress), welfare reform (still to be drafted), a proposal to make dramatic cuts in all branches of the military to go along with the major cuts in military bases which Congress approved earlier this year, and an important proposal to devote billions of dollars to retraining workers and converting plants to create alternative jobs and new careers for those affected by this streamlining of the military.

Clearly, this President is committed to change. His agenda is far-reaching and the challenges he will pose to Congress this fall are quite demanding. The battles ahead will be intense and will, no doubt, require substantial compromises.

The outcome of this fall’s legislative agenda will determine not only the direction of government during the next four years, but also the prospects for the reelection of many members of Congress in 1994, and Clinton’s own chances in 1996.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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