Setting an ambitious pace as he enters his second term, President Clinton said Friday he will begin working with congressional leaders next week to see if they can strike a deal to balance the budget and shore up the Medicare trust fund.
Clinton expressed optimism that an accord could be reached quickly - and a top Senate Republican concurred afterwards that a Medicare agreement was possible.
“Toward the end of the last session, we didn’t seem to be that far apart,” said Florida Sen. Connie Mack, the incoming chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. “So it might be useful to move ahead and try to work out something now.”
Medicare’s Part A trust fund, which covers hospital expenses and at-home care, is projected to go bankrupt in 2001 unless its finances are reformed. During the campaign, Clinton gained politically from his attacks on earlier GOP efforts to curb Medicare spending.
At a White House news conference, his first since winning re-election, Clinton said his first priorities will be forging bipartisan agreements on how to keep Medicare solvent, cut spending and structure modest tax cuts.
Clinton said he will appoint a commission to deal with long-range problems facing Social Security and Medicare, and said he is open to accelerating the scheduled increases in the retirement age from 65 to 67.
In addition, Clinton said he will push to enact bipartisan reforms to campaign-finance law “as soon as possible” in an effort to defuse the controversy swirling around questionable donations totaling more than $1 million from foreign nationals to the Democratic Party. And he denied that his administration had given any special favors in return for the contributions.
“We clearly have a unique moment of opportunity now, when the public and you in the press are focused on this issue,” Clinton said. “Now is the time to seize it, before the moment fades. The American people will be watching to see whether our deeds match our words.
Appearing relaxed and confident, the president began the news conference by announcing the appointment of a new White House chief of staff, Erskine Bowles. The 51-year-old Bowles was deputy chief of staff before returning home to Charlotte, N.C., last year.
Bowles, who immediately emphasized his commitment to seeking bipartisan cooperation with the Republican Congress, replaces Leon Panetta, who is resigning to return to California. Panetta is expected to run for governor.
Addressing a wide array of topics, Clinton:
Said the White House has been asked to approve a plan that would keep a smaller troop force in Bosnia beyond the completion of the planned troop pullout, which is scheduled to end in March. The troops would remain in a limited capacity as the nation’s economic reconstruction continues.
“It is conceivable we could participate,” Clinton said, adding that he is waiting to receive a NATO report on goals and parameters of the mission.
Implied that Hillary Rodham Clinton would likely play what appears to be a more limited role in the second term, in stark contrast to her high-profile position managing the administration’s efforts to reform health care in 1993. “My assumption would be that whatever she did, she would be working on the issues that relate to children and families that she has spent most of her life doing,” Clinton said.
Said he “hated” the toll the Whitewater investigation has taken on his family and others who have come under scrutiny in the investigation. “And the thing I really hate,” he said “is that when people that are completely innocent are basically confronted with a presumption of guilt and told to prove they’re innocent of charges, they’re not quite sure what they’re supposed to do.”
Said he would oppose raising payroll taxes to help bail out Social Security. Clinton proposed forming a bipartisan commission to address what he described as the baby boom issues of Medicare and Social Security, and said that lawmakers must immediately work to add a decade of life to the Medicare Trust Fund.
Strongly hinted that his White House rival, Bob Dole, could have an administration position if he wanted.
“But I think that should be his decision. We should let a little time go by.”