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Gephardt Issues Call for Compromise

Politics: Democrat, in party's response to Bush's speech, urges rivals to cooperate on economic policy and campaign reform.

January 30, 2002|NICK ANDERSON and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) challenged President Bush on Tuesday to compromise on economic policy and embrace campaign finance reform, as Democrats continued to probe for election-year vulnerabilities in an administration with commanding public approval ratings.

Delivering the televised Democratic response to Bush's State of the Union address, Gephardt reiterated what has become his party's mantra since Sept. 11: that it backs the White House completely on the war on terrorism. But Gephardt said Bush and his fellow Republicans should respond with greater cooperation on bread-and-butter domestic issues.

"I refuse to accept that while we stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the war, we should stand toe-to-toe on the economy," Gephardt said. "We need to find a way to respect each other, and trust each other, and work together to solve the long-term challenges America faces. I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and go to work."

To that end, Gephardt called on the White House to convene a bipartisan summit to address the nation's economic recession, a proposal the administration has already dismissed as a political stunt.

Even as Gephardt called for the two parties to work more closely on the domestic agenda, he sought to depict Democrats as more attuned to the public on those issues. For instance, he said that Democrats are committed to "helping the unemployed--not just large corporations and the most fortunate."

And he invoked the Enron Corp. scandal, saying the company's ties to the administration and Capitol Hill through millions of dollars in political donations spotlight the need for campaign finance reform.

"If the nation's largest bankruptcy coupled with a clear example of paid political influence isn't a prime case for reform, I don't know what is," Gephardt said. "I hope the president will stand with us to clean up the political system and get big money out of politics."

The president favors a more limited reform bill than the one leading Democrats and a handful of renegade Republicans are pushing.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who has been the favorite target of White House and Republican attacks in recent weeks, responded to Bush's speech by focusing on "common ground" between the administration and Democrats.

"The president has put forward an aggressive agenda this evening, but with a renewed commitment to compromise from both sides, I believe that we can put our economy back on track, win the war against terror and meet our nation's great unmet goals," Daschle said. He emphasized the need to help the jobless and give the elderly affordable prescription drug coverage.

Acclaim for Bush's war effort was nearly universal. "He's done a good job," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "He speaks plainly, he tells the world where we're coming from."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles)--a leading administration critic on several domestic issues, most recently the Enron case--said he found Bush's call for a comprehensive, sustained fight against terrorism "quite inspiring."

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) expressed hope that the speech would spawn a new dealmaking spirit on Capitol Hill. "I hope I'm not being naive, but I think we can get something done," Bayh said.

But other Democrats predicted that on domestic issues, bipartisanship would be in scarce supply this year.

"It's difficult because of the most natural of causes," said Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.). The two parties have "very different priorities for the country." While Bush "may seem to be supportive" of increasing Medicare services and education spending, he said, "he does not seem willing to make a substantive commitment of resources."

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), whom Bush praised for his work on education reform, said he anticipates "a tough year" unless Bush relents on his call to make permanent last year's tax cut law. "He said after Sept. 11 that everything changed. Yeah, everything changed except the tax cut. That's going to make it tough to have bipartisan support."

But Democrats themselves are divided on how to respond to the 10-year, $1.35-trillion tax cut now that federal deficits have reemerged. Some rank-and-file Democrats fret that their leaders have not yet found a theme to unite the party. "We look like a party divided, but the rule of thumb for the minority party is, stay together," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento).

And while the ongoing nature of the counter-terrorism campaign put Democrats in the position of defining their differences with Bush in a deferential tone, congressional Republicans had the luxury of cheering on a popular wartime president.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) summed up his party's mood: "President Bush continued to show strong leadership for our country, and I, like all Americans, am very proud of his leadership since the Sept. 11 attacks."

Centrist Republicans hoped that Bush's speech would set the table for at least some bipartisan achievements this year to match the sweeping school reform bill that the president signed into law earlier this month. "Hope springs eternal," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). "We have a model in the education bill."

Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), another centrist, said Bush's speech--at 48 minutes--had the virtue of relative brevity and achievable goals. "At least he didn't give one of those speeches where he promised 40 things and you know darned well he wouldn't be able to deliver 10 of them," Castle said.

One group of lawmakers came away especially pleased: House Republican leaders. "At least in the House, the president's policy agenda will match our own," said Rep. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, a GOP leader. "As you could see by the speed with which [many Republicans] leaped to their feet, one of my colleagues was complaining about repetitive stress syndrome."

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