After three months of ceding the initiative to the Republicans and their Contract With America, President Clinton Friday threatened to veto half a dozen major bills, already passed by the House, unless they were substantially altered by the Senate.
Clinton, defining the limits of his willingness to compromise, said he would reject House-passed versions of bills dealing with the legal system and government regulations, crime, the use of American troops in United Nations operations, and compensation for property owners whose land loses value as a result of federal regulations.
And while he did not specifically say he would veto the $189 billion taxcut bill enacted by the House as the climax of the first 100 days of the Republican-controlled Congress, Clinton called it a “fantasy” and said “we can’t afford it.”
“Let’s target a tax cut to the right people and for the right purpose,” he said in a speech here before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. “We have to choose. Do you want a tax cut for the wealthy or for the middle class?”
Clinton for the first time in months put Speaker Newt Gingrich on the defensive by delivering his speech hours before the House Republican leader was to give a televised address summing up his party’s first 100 days.
Clinton was conciliatory at times, saying that he “did not want a pile of vetoes” and wanted to work amicably with Congress, especially with Senate Republicans who he hopes will moderate House Republican measures he considers too extreme.
But the major purpose of his speech was to mount a counterattack to the Republicans and to indicate that Gingrich’s unchallenged moment in the spotlight had come to an end.
The president tore through the Republicans’ Contract With America point by point, issuing his most specific threats to date to block legislation.
“In the first 100 days it fell to the House of Representatives to propose,” he said. “In the next 100 days and beyond, the president has to lead the quiet, reasoned forces of both parties in both houses to sift through the rhetoric and decide what is really best for America.”
There was, nevertheless, another powerful sign Friday that Clinton, despite his stern language, remains eager to compromise with congressional Republicans. The White House said that Clinton would sign a Senate-passed measure calling for $16 billion in midyear budget cuts if its terms were approved by the House, even though the measure would not maintain education, welfare and social programs at the levels the president had sought.
Clinton had expressed strong criticism of the budget-cutting bill passed by the House, which calls for $17 billion in reductions, and senior White House officials acknowledged that the Senate version had merely made a bad bill somewhat better. Alice B. Rivlin, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, acknowledged in a telephone interview that it would halt the growth of the National Service Corps, known as Americorps.
But Leon E. Panetta, the White House chief of staff, said the president regarded the improvements made by the Senate as a model for other issues.
“What the president sees in the rescission bill is an example of the process that he hopes will be applied to other legislation as it makes its way from the House to the Senate,” Panetta said in a brief telephone interview.
In his Dallas speech, Clinton also tried to offer an alternative to the Republicans’ list of priorities, repeating his own determination to press for an increase in the minimum wage, new tax breaks for education, incremental changes in health insurance and reforms in lobbying and campaign financing.