Clinton pushes domestic spending bills as Congress returns to work
White House says minimum wage hike should be 'first order of business'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Clinton huddled with top congressional Democrats as the House and Senate prepared to tackle a largely unresolved federal budget and a pile of contentious issues that could sway the fall elections.
Clinton: "Yesterday, we celebrated Labor Day. Today, it's time to honor the labor of the American people who sent us here."
Spending bills, tax cut plans, rival health care proposals, and a proposed $1 per hour increase in the minimum wage are just some of the issues atop the congressional agenda as lawmakers return from their month-long summer recess.
"The American people want us to address the pressing issues that affect their daily lives," Clinton during a Rose Garden appearance after the meeting Tuesday. "Yesterday, we celebrated Labor Day. Today, it's time to honor the labor of the American people who sent us here."
After an hour-long meeting with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, and other Democratic leaders, Clinton promptly urged Congress to make raising the hourly minimum wage "the first order of business" during the fall session.
The president discussed the matter last week with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, who indicated the GOP would support a $1 increase over two years in exchange for Democratic support for some small-business tax breaks. The minimum wage, last increased in 1996, is currently $5.15 an hour.
Hoping to avoid a shutdown
Republicans have hinted that a number of other compromises could be likely. Although the Clinton administration is unlikely to make headway on Democrat proposals for prescription drug coverage and gun control, the GOP has indicated the president could get a large part of an additional $23 billion in spending he is demanding for education, anti-crime and other domestic programs.
"We should not forget that the Congress comes back at the beginning of the school year, and there are pressing educational needs for America," Clinton said. The children of this country need more teachers and smaller classes and modern classrooms. We need to continue to support 100,000 good, new teachers."
Although generally adverse to increased government spending, Republican leaders are eager to avoid a government shutdown and would like to wrap up work by mid-October so GOP lawmakers can focus on the November contests.
Clinton has been successful in showdowns with congressional Republicans since the 1995 government shutdown, which the public largely blamed on the GOP. With a slim House majority in the balance this November, Republicans are even more unlikely to force a pro-longed confrontation this year.
"I think we ought to wrap up our business and go out and let the American people tell us which way they'd like the country to go," Sen. Mitch McConnell said earlier this week.
But Republicans also don't want to be seen as having given in to Clinton's terms, which could keep the party's conservative core sitting on its hands in November. Thus far, only two of 13 spending measures needed to fund the government into the new October 1 fiscal year have been passed by Congress and signed by the president. Democrats and Republicans remain at odds over health care spending, funding the United Nations and environmental issues.
Health care issue looms large
On the health care front, the White House on Tuesday touted two new studies suggesting that government subsidies work better at increasing access to insurance coverage that do tax credits or deductions. Republicans have pushing for such measures in exchange for support for the minimum wage hike and patients' bill of rights.
Gephardt, backed by Clinton and other Democrats, spoke to the press after the meeting
The first report, authored by the president's Council of Economic Advisers, shows that 44 million Americans lack health insurance, up from 31 million in 1987. Barriers to coverage include: low wages, loss of employer-based coverage, aging and chronic illness, according to the report.
Of the three approaches used to widen access to health insurance -- tax deductions, tax credits and direct subsidies -- the report said direct subsidies are most efficient and cost-effective.
A second report was compiled by the Washington-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank. The center found that states with flexible Medicaid requirements have higher enrollment rates among low-income parents. Many of those parents also enrolled their children for coverage under the separate State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIPS), the study found.
"We have a proposal on the table that would allow the states to enroll the parents of children who are eligible for our Children's Health Insurance Program. We have a proposal on the table that would allow people between the ages of 55 and 65 to enroll in Medicare if they lose their previous health insurance," Clinton argued.
"These proposals could take care of 25 percent ... the most needy 25 percent of those 44 million Americans without health insurance."
Clinton also called for passage of Democratic proposals to offer prescription drug coverage under Medicare and a so-called patients bill of rights -- although both measures are likely to remain stalled.
In addition to spending bills, Senate Republicans are expected to take up the China trade agreement that passed the House in June after a pitched battle that split a number of Democrats. The measure would permanently grant the People's Republic of China the same access to U.S. markets most other U.S. economic partners enjoy, ending the annual vote on granting Beijing normalized trade status.
Republicans in both chambers will also attempt to override Clinton's veto of voter-popular measures that would have repealed the federal estate tax and the so-called "marriage penalty" tax. Although a number of Democrats joined the GOP in supporting the measures last month, the GOP is unlikely to garner enough votes for an override.
But Republicans appear content to use Clinton's veto of the tax cuts as a campaign issue while pushing for $76 billion in tax cuts for small businesses as part of an agreement on the minimum wage hike.