WASHINGTON -- After prevailing on Democrats to pass his budget by the smallest of margins last week, President Bill Clinton yesterday called on Republicans to help pass the next big item on his economic agenda -- a health-care reform bill aimed in part at reducing the federal deficit to zero. "We cannot have every great issue of the day decided on the basis of partisanship," Clinton said in a speech in Charleston, W.Va. "We have got to do some of these things together."
The President heralded the $496 billion budget plan as "a good beginning" and "a first, but major step to take control over our economic destiny." With nearly 20% of national income going toward interest on the debt, "we cannot turn this around overnight," he said. "but we can never turn it around unless we show a willingness to change."
Next on the agenda, Clinton said, "we have to deal with the greatest continuing threat to national security and personal security -- the question of health care," but to do so will require "bipartisan support."
Clinton repeated his intent to use the health-care overhaul package to assert further control over annual deficits, which the administration projects will stay over $200 billion through the end of the century primarily because of double-digit growth in two health-care programs, Medicare and Medicaid.
"Without reform of the health-care system, we can never reduce the deficit to zero," he said.
While the administration's overhaul plan will be designed to reduce health-care costs overall and broaden coverage to all citizens, it will also contain specific reforms in the existing programs to cut spending, said Laura Tyson, chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers, in a White House briefing Friday.
"Based on numbers which have been put together by the health-care task force, we believe there is enough inefficiency, redundancy, and administrative overhead in the current system that we can gain a tremendous amount from reform and bring the rate of growth of health-care spending under control," Tyson said.
Tyson emphasized that the reductions in the deficit under the health plan will be gradual, possibly taking between five and 10 years to attain the goal of a balanced budget.
Clinton's call for more bipartisan support on the next leg of his economic agenda so far has received a mixed response from Congress. Moments before the budget plan squeked through the House on a 218-to-216 vote Thursday, House minority leader Robert Michel, R-Ill., pledged the cooperation of his party in drafting a health-care bill.
"We Republicans will be participating players because we have constructive alternatives to offer that neither the President nor the Democratic majority can ignore," Michel said.
But Senate minority leader Robert Dole, R-Kan., who along with the Senate's other 43 Republicans came close to defeating the budget in a 51-to-50 vote late Friday, was not very forthcoming in a television interview over the weekend about helping Clinton pass legislation containing additional budget cuts.
"If we're going to get into that game, Republicans will insist we go back and take out retroactivity and get rid of all the tax increases" in the budget bill, he said. "Then we'll talk about spending cuts."
Besides taking another whack at the deficit through the health-care plan, the White House pledged itself in the final days of the budget debate to proposing a major spending rescission bill designed to cut the government's $550 billion of discretionary programs by another $10 billion in fiscal 1994, which begins Oct. 1.
The rescission bill is likely to draw heavily from proposals now being drafted by Vice President Al Gore's task force on "reinventing government," administration officials said.
The task force, among other things, next month will propose some major consolidations of the government's dozens of agencies to achieve substantial budgetary savings, said deputy Treasury secretary Roger Altman at the White House briefing.
"I think people will be surprised at how sweeping those recommendations are," Altman said.
Clinton's pledge to present a rescission bill to Congress next month was made to gain the support of a half dozen conservative Democrats in the House who were wavering at the last minute before the House's vote on the budget.
But one prominent lawmaker who had advocated such measures in the past, Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Tex., chairman of the Conservative Democratic Forum, refused to go along.
In a brief interview before the House vote, Stenholm said that, despite such promises from the President, he has concluded that little progress will ever be made in cutting spending unless Democrats and Republicans show more willingness to work together.
But Stenholm said he expects to see more such cooperation after enactment of the budget, which severely divided Congress because of its large tax increases. "After that, you're going to see everybody around here heave a big sigh of relief," he said.