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Clinton, Lott Put Priority on Budget, Medicare

Politics: But they disagree on how to attain goals. Senate leader ties GOP help to president admitting health care program is worse off than he has acknowledged.


WASHINGTON — While conceding that Americans are tired of status quo partisan politics, President Clinton and the Senate Republican leader split Sunday on how best to balance the federal budget and save the nation's Medicare program, as they laid out their priorities for the coming year.

Clinton, about to embark on his second term in the White House, said balancing the budget will be his No. 1 goal.

"That's plainly the message of the election," he said in an interview taped Friday and aired Sunday on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley."

"They want us to work together" on such issues, he said. "It's a yearning. It's almost an aching out there."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) agreed that getting a balanced budget is a pressing challenge and that finding a solution to the coming crisis in Medicare is an important part of it. But while echoing Clinton's call for bipartisanship, he chastised the president for his scathing criticism of the GOP's proposal for Medicare reform.

"On Medicare, he's been irresponsible," Lott said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."

"He's misled the people. He's misinformed them. It's been disingenuous. He's going to have to basically admit the problem is there, it's more serious than he has acknowledged, and then we'll work together."

The president and top congressional leaders are scheduled to meet this week to begin discussing the agenda for the 105th Congress, which convenes in January. Both sides agree that the federal budget deficit must shrink and Medicare's fiscal solvency must be extended. But they part ways on how to reduce spending and on how much the projected growth of Medicare can be curbed without unfairly burdening recipients.

Clinton said the White House and Capitol Hill were very close in the last session of Congress to agreeing to a plan for balancing the budget and he predicted that a new compromise could be struck within a year.

"I will give them a balanced budget and urge that we at least resume talks where we left off," he said. "There's not a lot of complexity to it. We worked hard last year, and we're so close I think we can do it."

Lott said the new Senate, which will include a larger Republican majority, may be more willing to pass a constitutional amendment on balancing the budget. But he criticized many Democrats for opposing such an amendment.

"But we will bring it up," he vowed. "The only question is when. Will it be almost immediately, or soon, or exactly when? We think we have the votes, but there'll be a lot of pressure on Democrats not to vote for it."

On redesigning Medicare, which is one of the government's most expensive programs, covering 38 million beneficiaries, Lott said Clinton "needs to wake up on this and be honest with the American people about the seriousness of the problem."

The program is at risk on two fronts: At current spending rates, the hospital trust fund could run out of money by 2001; in the longer term, officials must determine how to pay for the health needs of the baby-boom generation.

Republicans want the president to present a detailed rescue plan that does not raise costs for members or levy new taxes. The White House is considering creating a bipartisan commission to study the problem, much like the special panel set up in the early 1980s to find a way to keep Social Security solvent.

But Lott said establishing a new commission would merely be "punting the ball."

"We have a responsibility. We can do it ourselves," he said. "If the president will be responsible, which he has not been on this issue, we can work together and solve the problems."

Clinton said he expects to seek a commission to address the long-term problem after the White House and Congress come up with a plan to forestall the immediate crisis.

He said members of a commission independent of party affiliation could "resolve it where all interests are represented, and they make the principal compromises necessary to do the work."

On campaign finance reform, another issue that will receive attention in Congress, Clinton and Lott said changes should be made, particularly in the area of foreign money making its way into U.S. political campaigns. The Democrats have been the focus of new investigations involving large contributions from questionable sources, some apparently overseas.

While Clinton and his party have conceded no wrongdoing, the president said: "It's better if people who are not citizens and cannot vote should not contribute. That's what I think, and I think we should just ban it." Currently those with permanent-residency status in the United States are considered legal donors.

Said Lott: "We need to look into the abuses and corruption in this campaign--what happened to foreign contributions, do we need to tighten the law up there? I think probably we do."

Times wire services contributed to this story.

* BRINKLEY APOLOGY: Commentator tells president he's sorry for on-air barbs. A16

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