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Last of the big spenders

House Speaker Thomas (Tip) O'Neil Jr. was in rare form. He held his audience of reporters almost in his hands as he moved away from the point of a question to hold forth on the philosophical and political changes taking place in the United States.

"During the last 50 years," said Mr. O'Neill, "the Democratic Party has built up America, especially middle America. The record is out there. America was dilapidated. And we built it up." He continued:

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"But we did make mistakes. There was a lack of productiveness in our programs; too much idealism; too many regulations; we went too far."

Then the old liberal who a half century ago would have been called a silver-tongued orator addressed himself to what he conceded to be the "overspending" of Democrats. "I've been one of the great spenders of all time," he said. When laughter erupted, he added soberly, "I admit it."

Then he told how, "when the climate here was different," he used to "sneak in" spending legislation -- particularly for people in need who, he said, could not get help elsewhere. He mentioned health and other programs that he had initiated which he believed had humanitarian value.

"I always thought," he said, "that this was an objective of the federal government -- to o these things. I know that the trend now is against this. But it doesn't mean that those spending programs were wrong." He said that he would not apologize for his actions of the past.

Was he saying that Americans have grown selfish and self-engrossed? a reporter asked. Speaker O'Neil would not concede such a change, but he repeated that the Democrats, through their spending programs, had altered America in a positive way. "Fifty years ago," he said, "51 percent of the people in this country were impoverished; now there are 8 percent impoverished."

The speaker is "very high" on the President. "Ronald Reagan has an immense amount of charisma and class," he said. "He has political smarts. And he is tremendously disarming."

He added to this portrait that "the President always has a story" and has a way of changing the subject when the speaker brings up a complaint. "If I want something changed, or something done, say about legislation," Mr. O'Neill says, "he quickly asks someone, Jim Baker or Ed Meese usually, to take care of it. And then he turns to some other subject."

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The speaker said that he has sought to make clear to the President that the Democrats in the House would oppose him on many issues but that Mr. reagan has a way of acting as if it's unbelievable that anything like that could occur. "He is extremely affable," commented Mr. O'Neill.

The congressional leader said the polling analysis he relies on indicates that Mr. Reagan did not win a "conservative mandate." "We lost 33 seats in the House and 14 of those were because of the unpopularity of President Carter. And we lost a number more because a popular Democratic congressman had retired and his replacement did not put up as good a campaign as his GOP opponent."

Mr. O'Neill attributes Reagan's current popularity to "the class he is showing and the way he is handling himself" but thinks this high standing with the public will drop as time goes on. He sees the Democrats picking up from 12 to 25 seats in 1982. "History is on our side," he said. "The party out of power usually picks up seats in Congress in the first off-presidential election year."

Mr. O'Neill said that the loss of the last election was attributable "basically" to the unpopularity of Carter at the time of the election. Pausing, he added: "I liked Carter. I've known eight presidents intimately -- and I've never known one more brillant."

Would the Democrats in time obstruct the President and his program? The veteran politician smiled, and referred to the mail he was getting: "Last week i received 1,400 letters in favor of Reagan, to 400 against. I saw the President yesterday and told him about this mail, and he said it was the best news he had all day."

The speaker emphasized tat it would be difficult for the Democrats to revise the President's programs much as long as his popularity remained so very high.

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