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Clinton Readies Centrist Strategy : Legislation: A rightward shift is planned to reclaim lost voters, stave off hostile Congress. Health reform will be cut to the bone, anti-crime social spending redirected.


WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration will jettison, soften or delay a number of its more controversial proposals in an effort to respond to the election results and present a more conservative public image, officials throughout the Administration said this week.

White House officials insist that the changes are a shift in emphasis and a return to longstanding Clinton policies, rather than a fire sale on Clinton's principles. But it is evident that the Clinton of the next two years will be much more centrist in his language and legislative goals than that of the first two years.

Among the changes:

* A sweeping immigration reform proposal, which was to have been delivered to Congress in January, is now being reworked and will be delayed.

* Officials are willing to see some of the $6.9 billion for social programs in the recently passed anti-crime legislation redirected to fund more prisons and police or to give block grants to cities to spend as they wish.

* Whatever health care reform plan is eventually presented to the new Republican Congress will be vastly narrower in scope than Clinton's initial proposal and much more incremental in its approach.

* A bill to ban the replacement of striking workers, once a high priority of the White House and Labor Department, will be abandoned as a sure loser in the new Congress.

These moves appear to mark a sharp veer to the right as Clinton tries to reclaim conservative and independent voters who have abandoned the Democrats in overwhelming numbers.

A senior White House official said a big emphasis for the remainder of Clinton's term would be the devolution of federal authority to local governments, whether in crime prevention, job, education or public health projects.

"The election was really about the role of government and the voters' feeling that Washington had gotten too big and too powerful," the official said. "You'll hear the President speaking a lot about federal partnerships with localities, getting money and power right into local hands."

The revised agenda alarms many Democratic liberals, who say they fear that the President will try to "out-Republican the Republicans" on a variety of social and fiscal issues.

"I don't have a problem with wanting to broaden the debate and wanting to reassess where you go as an Administration," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and an outspoken advocate of liberal social policies. "But I fear that in their effort to gain the world, they will lose their soul. The last thing we need in this country is two Republican parties."

Top White House officials, under the direction of Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, are carrying out an emergency all-hands drill to right the listing Clinton ship, a project some have dubbed "reinventing Clinton," although it doesn't have an official title.

One top aide involved in the effort said the recommendations of the group don't add up to a sharp rightward tilt--though some unpopular initiatives, such as the initial health care proposal, have already been tossed overboard.

"A lot of what we've done is centrist," the official said, citing the deficit-reduction plan, efforts to streamline the federal government and a redesigned school-aid program.

"A few high-profile items have been perceived as big government, like the health care plan, even though the portrayals are not accurate. I don't deny that there have been some issues that allow our critics to paint with a broader brush the nature of this Administration," the aide said. "Shame on us."

The new Clinton, he said, would put added emphasis on already-passed programs that reduce the size and reach of the federal government, as well as on initiatives with which he could reach some compromise with Republican leaders, such as welfare and political reform.

But the second half of the Clinton Administration will be defined as much by what it doesn't do as by what it does.

White House and Justice Department officials have shelved a broad proposal to deal with illegal immigration, which was to have been introduced in January.

The Clinton plan, while taking steps to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants and scale back the public benefits provided them, would not have gone as far as California's Proposition 187, which would deny to illegal immigrants all benefits except emergency medical care.

Now Administration officials are rethinking their plan but have not decided whether to make the legislation more punitive or to wait and see what the Republicans propose.

The likely House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), has already said he plans to introduce a national version of Proposition 187, and there is already a bill, written by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), to make it easier to deport criminal immigrants, toughen employer sanctions and provide for a nationwide system of verification of immigration status.

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