- The Washington Times - Friday, January 28, 2000

President Clinton Thursday night proposed $350 billion worth of targeted tax breaks along with a laundry list of new government programs and spending proposals in his eighth and final State of the Union address.

Mr. Clinton's proposals included an election-year handgun-licensing program a year after his gun-control measure languished in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

"Every state in this country already requires hunters and automobile drivers to have a license. I think they ought to do the same thing for handgun purchases," Mr. Clinton told a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol.

Mr. Clinton's plan would require new handgun buyers to get a photo license from their state showing they had passed the Brady Law's background check and completed a safety course.

Mr. Clinton's tax-relief proposals over 10 years include:

* $54 billion to create retirement savings accounts for low-income families.

* $45 billion to reduce the marriage-penalty for two-earner couples.

* $33 billion to fix the Alternative Minimum Tax, which inadvertently hurt middle-class wage earners.

* $30 billion to help families pay for child care.

* $30 billion to defray college costs.

* $27 billion to help families pay for long-term health care.

* $24.8 billion to modernize schools.

* $21 billion to expand the earned-income tax credit.

* $14 billion to encourage philanthropy.

But Mr. Clinton's aides would not say whether he plans additional taxes, such as his failed proposal last year to boost the price of cigarettes by 55 cents per pack.

"We'll put out the details on the tobacco plan with the budget," Bruce Reed, Mr. Clinton's domestic policy adviser, told reporters during a White House briefing Thursday.

Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Frist of Tennessee delivered the Republican response to Mr. Clinton's address. Miss Collins said Republicans planned to eliminate the $3.6 trillion national debt within 15 years.

Mr. Frist, a physician, decried Mr. Clinton's health-care plans, including a 10-year, $110 billion measure to reduce the cost of health insurance.

"The last time he proposed a health plan was seven years ago. And then it amounted to a federal government takeover of our entire health system," Mr. Frist said.

"Now tonight, 84 months later, the president has unveiled a similar plan just as bad as the first."

"We stand on the mountaintop of a new millennium," Mr. Clinton said as he ticked off statistics: the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years, the lowest unemployment rates in 30 years, the lowest poverty rates in 20 years, the lowest black and Hispanic unemployment rates on record, the first back-to-back budget surpluses in 42 years.

"We are fortunate to be alive at this moment in history. Never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis or so few external threats," Mr. Clinton said.

"Never before have we had such a blessed opportunity and therefore, such a profound obligation to build the more perfect union of our founders' dreams."

The address marked a transition, perhaps one of the last official functions in which Mr. Clinton will share the stage with Vice President Al Gore, his chosen successor, and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is seeking a Senate seat in New York.

Mr. Gore, who stood behind the president during his impeachment drama, sat behind Mr. Clinton Thursday night. Mr. Clinton made six references to Mr. Gore, hoping to give him a boost five days before the New Hampshire primary.

For example, Mr. Clinton proposed that "we follow Vice President Gore's suggestion to make low-income parents eligible for the insurance that covers their kids."

Former Sen. Bill Bradley, Mr. Gore's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, has criticized Mr. Gore's incremental approach to health care. Thursday night Mr. Clinton endorsed the vice president's plan before a national audience.

On the tax plan, aides said Mr. Clinton's budget proposal would close $100 billion in corporate loopholes to permit $250 billion in net tax cuts.

Last year Mr. Clinton vetoed Republicans' $792 billion tax cut. Tax cuts are likely to be an important issue in the presidential race. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has proposed a $483 billion tax cut over five years.

The White House previously announced many of the initiatives, including a $1 billion plan to expand Head Start, an educational program for preschoolers.

Republican leaders criticized the president for proposing too many programs at too high a cost to taxpayers.

"Once again, President Clinton has used the State of the Union address to offer a number of spending and policy priorities that span from promising to forgettable," said House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr., Oklahoma Republican.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, Texas Republican, skewered the president for his marriage penalty and alternative minimum tax proposals.

"Congress fixed those problems last year and will do so again this year," Mr. Archer said. "This year we hoped he won't veto it like he did last year."

Mr. Clinton appeared reluctant to cede the stage. His address lasted 89 minutes, topping the record he set in 1995.

The atmosphere differed markedly from last year's address, in which the impeached president delivered remarks to somber lawmakers during his Senate trial.

The president, trumpeted the nation's booming economy, noting that in February the nation will break a record for the longest-running economic expansion. The upturn began in March 1991, when George Bush was president.

Mr. Clinton is likely to realize little of his agenda. His power is waning as attention shifts toward the November election in which the presidency and control of the House and Senate are at stake.

The president said the budget he will release Tuesday will retire the federal publicly-held debt by 2013. He urged Congress to extend the solvency of Medicare to 2050 and to add a prescription drug benefit.

Guests sitting with Mrs. Clinton included Pat Johnson, 72, of Tennessee, who spends $4,000 from her savings for prescription drugs each year; Francis S. Collins, a doctor who oversees the federal government's project to map and sequence all human DNA by 2003; Carlos Rosas of St. Paul, Minn., who met his obligation to pay child support after he enrolled in an employment and training program; and Henry Aaron, baseball's all-time home run king.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson did not attend the president's address. One member of the Cabinet stays behind to run the government in case of a tragedy at the Capitol.

Dozens of House Democrats rushed into the chambers as soon as the doors opened at noon in a mad scramble to reserve seats along the aisle.

The prized seats ensure lawmakers a presidential handshake and national TV exposure. Among them were Rep. Michael P. Forbes of New York, who recently switched from the GOP to the Democratic party, and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

John Godfrey and Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.

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