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Clinton Praises Effort To Use Surplus to Fund Social Security

By Elizabeth Shogren
Los Angeles Times

President Clinton Thursday hailed a bipartisan consensus to earmark 62 percent of a projected budget surplus for Social Security, a proposal so novel when he introduced it during his State of the Union address last month that many Republicans accused him of budgetary sleight of hand.

"There seems now to be broad agreement among leaders and rank-and-file members in both parties of Congress to set aside the lion's share of the surplus to save Social Security," Clinton told a partisan crowd of 2,000 at the Tucson Convention Center. Basking in the relief of the end of his impeachment trial, Clinton received a warm welcome in Tucson.

Talking about his plans for spending the projected surplus of $4.47 trillion over the next 15 years, Clinton explained, "I know it would be a lot more popular to say, We have got a surplus, it's your money, I am just going to give it back to you.' And then you could all cheer, and I could go home. We'd go watch baseball or do something else."

Clinton's remarks followed House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's, R-Ill., embrace of the proposal on Wednesday.

House and Senate GOP leaders, meeting in early evening Thursday, agreed in principle to "put a lock" on 62 percent of all federal budget surpluses starting this year for Social Security.

But the bipartisan agreement on how much to earmark for keeping Social Security retirement program solvent for the baby boom generation does little to mask the policy disputes still ahead.

For one thing, Republicans and Democrats have not agreed on how to use the surplus funds. For another, they are still arguing about how much of the anticipated surplus to use for tax cuts.

Republicans want to use most of the remaining 38 percent of the surplus for tax cuts, and conservatives in particular feel strongly about pushing through large tax reductions.

Before the speech, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said that Clinton would use the opportunity to "tweak" Republicans for their tax cut proposals. But he did not.

Instead, Clinton cited positive movement targeting tax relief to certain groups instead of offering an across-the-board approach, such as removing the so-called marriage penalty in the tax code.

"There is, I think, some movement toward reaching some consensus about the nature of tax cuts, that they ought to be targeted and benefit people that need it most," Clinton said.

Republicans lost no time in responding to Clinton's apparent olive branch. Hastert issued a statement saying he was pleased Clinton "has started to come our way" toward tax relief.

But congressional Republicans are deeply skeptical of Clinton's plan to use another 15 percent of the expected surplus to bolster Medicare, the health insurance program for the elderly and disabled, which could be insolvent within 10 years.

"We don't yet have that kind of agreement on setting aside some of the surplus for Medicare, and I think we should," Clinton said.

"This is the threshold issue," the Democratic leader told reporters. "If we can make this decision in a bipartisan waythen I think the stage is set to sit down and go through the other matters that have to be looked at to solve further problems" involving Social Security.