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Clinton's Standing in the Union

President's call for reform, responsibility appeals to public, but what about Congress?

BILL CLINTON took to the road again yesterday - this time for Kutztown, Penn. - to pitch his modest, centrist agenda of partisan cooperation for the coming year.

The public is still willing to listen, even if Mr. Clinton has a tougher sell in Congress than any president in years.

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The early response to his State of the Union message Tuesday shows that he can still muster the good will and support of the vast majority of Americans.

Overnight surveys by the television networks found that between 79 and 85 percent of viewers approved of the direction the president has laid out for the country.

``Despite the fact that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, I allied myself with that speech more than anything else that he has said,'' says Greg Miller, part owner of a hair salon in Atlanta.

``Let's hope Congress and the people of this country hear his call for the end of divisiveness,'' wrote Robert Willey on a computer on-line service, where 59 percent of the first 2,400 users to respond to Clinton's speech rated it excellent or good.

But the response to his message on Capitol Hill itself showed what a ruggedly partisan and deeply skeptical environment he is now operating in. (Clinton's new agenda, Page 3; and foreign policy, Page 6.)

``I didn't like the atmosphere in the chamber,'' said Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania after Clinton spoke. Senator Specter was struck by the strong party lines in how members of Congress reacted to the president's agenda.

``I've been to 15 of these, and I've never seen so many people applaud when others are sitting on their hands,'' he said. ``It's going to be a tough year ahead.''

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Clinton is clearly trying to make as much common cause as possible with the energized Republicans now running Congress. He no longer vows to fight for bold new aims, as in previous years, but vows to defend a few of his most cherished achievements from the last Congress.

Clinton has revived a phrase with Biblical overtones he used early in his presidential campaign and abandoned long before he was elected: the New Covenant, stressing the importance of responsibility and citizenship as well as opportunity.

This is a philosophical departure from conventional liberalism, which stresses individual and group rights rather than civic and family obligations. The departure is an approach that appeals to many Republicans as well as Democrats.

Translated into policy, the covenant philosophy means asking welfare recipients to work when possible, teenagers to put off pregnancy until they are ready for the duties of parenthood, and it asks college students to perform some form of national service for their government-backed loans.

``Nothing has done so much to undermine a common sense of responsibility,'' said Clinton Tuesday, ``than the failed welfare system.''

Cuts in government

Clinton is stressing heavily his effort to streamline the federal government, noting that by his next State of the Union address, the federal work force will be smaller by a quarter million employees than when he became president.

Republicans agree with much of the agenda Clinton has outlined. House Republican majority leader Dick Armey of Texas, scribbling notes throughout Clinton's speech, counted seven of 10 items on the Republican ``Contract With America'' that Clinton endorsed.

Mr. Armey finds at least some degree of agreement with Clinton in the following areas: limiting unfunded mandates on state and local governments, balancing the federal budget, line-item veto for the president, welfare reform, toughness on crime, cutting taxes, and stronger defense.

But Republicans in Congress greet Clinton's words with strong skepticism.

``The president talked at length about [cutting] government regulation,'' says Republican Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, ``and yet today [Tuesday] his administration published 300 pages of new government regulations in the Federal Register.''

``It was nice to see him support most of what's in the `Contract With America,' '' says Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, chairman of the Republican Conference. ``But actions speak louder than words, and we heard these same kind of words in 1992. But in the last two years what we've seen is larger, more expensive, more bureaucratic government.''

The newest ground Clinton will try to break this year is to raise the minimum wage from its current $4.25 an hour - the lowest relative level in 40 years, he points out, and no longer a living wage.

This offers one of few rallying points for liberals in his agenda.

Praise from Rep. Kweisi Mfume

``It's good, at long last, that the president talked about it and did not run from it,'' says Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) of Maryland, chairman of the Black Caucus. ``We know that no one can live on $4.25 an hour.''

Republicans are strongly opposed to the minimum wage as a job-killer, however, and actually passage of a higher level is a long shot.

``This is a hurtful thing that government should not do,'' says Mr. Armey.

One of Clinton's strongest, most visibly heartfelt positions in his 81-minute address was his vow to turn back any effort to repeal the gun-control legislation passed during the last Congress.

Supporting the ban on assault weapons helped defeat many former members in the November elections, Clinton acknowledged. But Republicans also acknowledge that they don't have the votes to overcome a presidential veto.

Overall, the new, more middle-of-the-road Clinton agenda is a disappointment to some liberals.

``There wasn't a lot there [in Clinton's speech] for unemployed and low-income people,'' says Paul Lodico, coordinator of an organization of the unemployed in Homestead, Penn.

But in Congress, Democrats are mostly taking a pragmatic view of the need to support a president who is at least a moderating force against a strong rightward tide.

``I had to tell him last week,'' says Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, ``that even though I was violently opposed to his welfare bill, it looks ... a lot better since I've seen Gingrich's bill.''

Clinton insists that welfare reform should not punish children, notes Mr. Rangel, ``but he has no problem punishing people who refuse to go to work and refuse to go to school. ``That's not Republican. That's common sense,'' says Rangel.

What many Americans seem to appreciate most is hearing a tone of partisan cooperation from Clinton.

``I thought he was making a good effort,'' says Ann O'Connor, a speech pathologist in Tuba City, Ariz. ``I got the feeling that he was trying to get a more cooperative effort'' from Democrats and Republicans.

Whether Clinton succeeds is another matter. While as many as 85 percent approve of Clinton's agenda as he is describing it this week, only 55 percent Tuesday night thought he could accomplish much of it, according to CNN and ABC polls.

``Clinton always gives a good speech,'' writes Robert Smith on the computer on-line service. ``His primary problem is the gap between the rhetoric and his reality (really fuzzy).''

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