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STATE OF THE UNION

GOP Differs on Use of Budget Surplus

Response: Lott, in reply to Clinton's address, says excess revenue should go toward national debt or back to taxpayers, not to bolster Social Security.

January 28, 1998|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Professing his commitment to "family, faith and freedom," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said Tuesday night that the projected budget surplus should go toward the national debt or back to taxpayers--not spent on new social programs or, as President Clinton proposed, saved to strengthen the Social Security system.

In the Republican Party's official response to Clinton's State of the Union address, Lott called for an overhaul of the tax code and elimination of the Internal Revenue Service, signaling the GOP's plan to focus on this popular issue in an election year.

"The choice is really clear: big government or families? More taxes or more freedom?" Lott said, painting stark dichotomies between the GOP and its Democratic foes.

Following party leaders' dictum to ignore the allegations of sex and lies swirling around the White House, many Republican members of Congress received the president warmly, joining Democrats for several standing ovations. In interviews afterward, several lawmakers continued their head-nodding.

"This speech amounts to an anticipatory endorsement of the [Republican] congressional agenda," said Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), who ranks fifth in the GOP House leadership. "Frankly, the speech was written at such a high level of abstraction, it is difficult to disagree with 80%."

Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said he was "thrilled" to hear Clinton's "bold" proposals for Social Security, but disagreed with the president's emphasis on teenage tobacco addiction rather than drugs.

Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego) praised the president for backing tougher clean-water laws and adding 1,000 new Border Patrol agents--both key issues to California. "As long as he continues to be a progressive who wants to force Washington to do better, I think we'll work together great," Bilbray said.

But Republican National Committee Co-Chairwoman Pat Harrison criticized the president for denouncing big government with one hand and proffering new projects on the other. "It was a long shopping list," she said. "You really, literally, couldn't keep up with it."

Likely presidential candidate Steve Forbes said in a post-speech interview that Clinton's "glittering rhetoric doesn't match reality." He also urged Republicans to "step into the political vacuum" while Clinton is "beleaguered" by the current crisis.

"Congress should declare the president's new spending initiatives dead on arrival," Forbes said. "Never before has one man taken so much from so many for so long."

Lott, also a possible national candidate in 2000, delivered his inaugural State of the Union response while seated in front of a video wall, images of the American flag and the preamble to the Constitution alternating with charts, photos of schoolchildren and a picture of stacks of tax forms.

Wearing a brick-red power tie, Lott stumbled on a couple of phrases but recovered well, punctuating his points with confident hand gestures.

"Despite any current controversy, this Congress will vigorously support the president in full defense of America's interest throughout the world," Lott said in a warning to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Displaying a chart showing the federal government's income has swelled 951% in the last three decades while family incomes rose only 492%, Lott called the fact that the typical American family pays 38% of its income in taxes "immoral."

He invoked his mother--"bless her heart"--as an example of a devoted public schoolteacher, and argued that all parents should be able to choose, as Clinton and Vice President Al Gore did, to send their children to private schools. He referred to the GOP's school voucher program, which would provide tax subsidies that parents can use for private school tuition and which Clinton has opposed.

He decried the near-doubling of teenage drug use since 1992, urged more aggressive border-control to target criminals, and said "we must . . . make the death penalty a real threat."

"If we are honestly committed to protecting the innocent, we must do more to punish the guilty," Lott said. "We can--and we will--save America, one child at a time."

Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this story.

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