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Daschle's Newly-Formed Views Break with White House Dems

By David S. Broder
The Washington Post

Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) Monday staked out fresh positions on Social Security, Medicare, welfare, late-term abortions, and campaign finance reform, signaling a growing independence from the White House by key Capitol Hill Democrats.

In a breakfast meeting with reporters, Daschle endorsed the concept of investing a portion of Social Security taxes in the stock market, said he was seeking compromise language that would "get 100 votes" for a limited ban on a controversial late-term abortion procedure-called "partial-birth" abortion by its opponents - and said he would introduce his own constitutional amendment to limit spending in future political campaigns.

He also said he would seek a July deadline on congressional action on Medicare rather than supporting creation of a bipartisan commission to deal with the program's financing crisis. And he said President Clinton should use his executive power to cope with problems arising from the welfare reform bill he signed this year, rather than asking Congress to return to that issue.

On all these matters, the Senate Democratic leader, starting his third year in the job, appeared less deferential to White House views than he had been in the last Congress. Daschle joked that his stands were "closely coordinated" with the president's but joined in the reporters' laughter at the assertion.

Saying he enjoyed "a very good relationship" with Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Daschle nonetheless suggested the Republicans' agenda for 1997 may make it difficult to fulfill what he called the evident public desire for "more cooperation" between the parties.

He showed no give on the GOP-backed flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, asking, "When was the last time you saw a flag burned? Why not just make the flags of fire-resistant material?"

He offered little more conciliation on the balanced-budget amendment, saying he and other Democrats would again demand a version that fenced off Social Security - an insistence that sank the amendment in the last Congress. Daschle questioned GOP claims that the amendment will pass this time without that concession.

But he took a more conciliatory approach to two other issues that produced partisan fighting and presidential vetoes in the past two years.

On the partial-birth abortion issue, Daschle said he had begun staff-level discussions with supporters of a ban in hopes "we could get 100 votes" for a rewritten measure. He is proposing a ban on all third-trimester abortions, he said, "that would more clearly define the exceptions" and limit them to cases involving "the life of the mother and severe impairment of her health."

Last year, Congress voted down a broader exemption for the health of the woman and Clinton vetoed the bill on those grounds. Catholic bishops and others led a major drive to override the veto, but it failed. Daschle made it clear he would like to move the issue off the political agenda and said the kind of language he was proposing was "something many others in my caucus can support."

As for Medicare - an issue on which Democrats and their allies hammered Republicans in the last campaign - Daschle said, "I am not averse to a commission," as suggested by Clinton and GOP nominee Bob Dole, "but I'd like to see Congress take it on itself." He said the committees of jurisdiction could propose reforms to deal with the immediate financing crisis "and as much else as we can" of the long-term problem by July 1, and the Senate could "take the whole month of July if we have to and finish action by the August recess."

On the related issue of Social Security, Daschle said he "would not be surprised to see Congress approve" a fundamental change in policy that would allow an unspecified portion of payroll taxes to be invested, not in government bonds as is the case now, but in stocks and other equities. Administration officials, led by Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, have adamantly opposed "privatizing" Social Security this way, but Daschle said "people want a better return on their savings" and lent his support to the idea.

On the welfare legislation, Daschle conceded that "ultimately, Congress will have to deal with the problems of legal immigrants and children" who may lose their benefits under the 1996 legislation, but said that for now, "the president and the states have the flexibility" to make the needed adjustments.

On campaign finance, Daschle said he would propose a constitutional amendment to limit spending by candidates, parties and independent groups as one of his three top priorities for the new year.