Clinton proposes 'new covenant'
WASHINGTON -- In a political drama unseen for 40 years, President Clinton went before a distrusting Republican Congress Tuesday night and asked his political opponents to join him in bringing about "dramatic change in our economy, in our government and in ourselves"
Looking back on the GOP election landslide last November as well as the 1992 vote that put him in the White House, Clinton said in a nationally broadcast State of the Union address: "We didn't hear America singing. We heard America shouting. Now we must say: We hear you. We will work together to earn your trust.
Clinton was the first Democrat since Harry Truman to face a Republican Congress, and the White House viewed his speech as a crucial step in rebuilding his troubled presidency.
'Mr. President, welcome to the House," Speaker Newt Gingrich said. Despite the GOP majority, Clinton was greeted with cheers and applause.
Clinton used his speech to launch a national campaign to combat teen pregnancy.
To cut down on illegal immigration, Clinton proposed creation of a national data bank to help employers verify the identification of prospective workers.
He also pledged to seek a raise in the minimum wage from the current $4.25 an hour, but shied from mentioning a specific pay scale; GOP leaders oppose it. Clinton favors a boost to $5 over two years, aides said.
Though politically weakened, Clinton was quick to lay down challenges to the Republicans who control both the House and Senate for the first time in four decades.
"Let's give the folks at home something to cheer about," Clinton said, urging lawmakers to stop accepting gifts from lobbyists even before passing a bill that would outlaw them. "When Congress killed political reform last year," he said," the lobbyists actually stood in the halls of this sacred building and cheered."
Over and over, Clinton stressed conciliation and partnership but he sketched out sharp differences with Republicans on how to cut taxes, shrink government and help the middle class. "Let us put aside partisanship, pettiness and pride," he said.
"As we embark on a new course, let us put our country first, remembering that regardless of our party label, we are all Americans."
New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, who has rocketed to political stardom with a tax-cutting plan, was chosen to give the Republican response.
In a taped address from the historic legislative chamber in Trenton, Whitman said a revolution is sweeping the country in which "people want less government, lower taxes and less spending from the federal government."
She said it was Republicans who were delivering on those demands, and admonished Clinton: "You must accept it as well."
Whitman said some of the president's ideas sounded "pretty Republican," but she recalled that Clinton raised taxes, increased spending and opposes a balanced-budget amendment. The November elections, she said, "sounded a warning for the president."
Resurrecting the themes that got him elected, Clinton's speech was pitched to the middle class voters who deserted Democrats in November.
A centerpiece of Clinton's program is his "Middle Class Bill of Rights," offering tax breaks to families with children, deductions for college tuition and incentives for retirement savings. It also promises $2,600 in direct vouchers for people seeking job training.
"I know a lot of you have your own ideas about tax relief," Clinton said. "My test for any proposal is: Will it create jobs and raise incomes? Will it strengthen families and support children? Will it build the middle class and shrink the underclass? Is it paid for?
"If it does," Clinton said, "I will support it. If it doesn't, I will oppose it."
Espousing an unspecified increase in the $4.25-an-hour minimum wage, Clinton said members of Congress have been on the job less than a month but already have earned what someone earning only the minimum wage makes in a year.
"The plain fact is, you can't make a living on $4.25 an hour, especially if you have kids to support," the president said.
Clinton said little on foreign policy, but he did sketch out a plan to intercept terrorists and drug traffickers. The program envisions establishment of courts to hold quick hearings to bar terrorists from the country. Earlier Tuesday, he took the first step by freezing the assets of a number of suspected terrorist groups.
Clinton took his theme from words spoken more than 60 years ago by Franklin D. Roosevelt which, he said, gave birth to the New Deal: "New conditions impose new requirements on government and those who conduct government."
For his part, Clinton laid out what he called a "New Covenant" which he said is grounded in the idea that all Americans "have not just a right but a responsibility to rise as far as their God-given talents and determination can take them and to give something back."
While calling for welfare reform, Clinton took a veiled swipe at Republican proposals that would deny cash and housing to teen-age mothers and bar benefit increases to women when they have more children.
"We shouldn't cut people off because they are poor, young, unmarried," the president said. "We shouldn't punish poor children for the mistakes of their parents."
While Clinton advocated his economic agenda, Republicans have their own tax-cutting plans, including a $500-per-child tax credit, a move toward repeal of the marriage tax penalty and other steps for middle-class tax relief.
Republicans intend to propose a $200 billion, five-year program of spending reductions and government cutbacks as the down payment on balancing the budget and offsetting revenue lost from tax cuts.
Drawing a line against Republicans, Clinton said he would not let Congress repeal the ban it adopted last year on assault weapons or to undermine the national service program, which he claims as his most prized accomplishment.
Responding to Republican demands for a six-month moratorium on federal regulations, Clinton said, "Do we need more common sense and fairness in our regulations? You bet we do. But we can have common sense and still provide for safe drinking water. We can have fairness and still clean up toxic waste dumps. And we ought to do it."
Acknowledging widespread support for a GOP initiative for a balanced budget amendment, Clinton said, "If you're going to pass this amendment, you have to be straight with the American people. They have a right to know what you are going to cut and how it would affect them. And you should tell them before you change the Constitution."
He got a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle when he called on Congress "to stop passing on to the states the cost of decisions we make here in Washington." Legislation to discourage such unfunded mandates is before both the House and the Senate.
Similarly, Republicans and Democrats alike rose and cheered his plea for a presidential line-item veto.
But Republicans booed when he went on to say that there still are important things that government must do.