WASHINGTON — President Clinton aimed for the political center, outlining a moderate agenda for the next year that incorporates ideas from members of both parties, Maine lawmakers said after the State of the Union address Tuesday.
In 77 minutes of remarks before hundreds of government decision-makers — his Cabinet, both Houses of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court — Clinton put forward his agenda for the new Congress, which calls for an increase in government spending to be paid for with the projected federal budget surplus.
Maine’s Republican and Democratic lawmakers said the president rightly identified the problems facing the country, but the Republicans said they were skeptical about whether the president can accomplish his policy initiatives without raising taxes.
Clinton’s legislative priorities include plans to save Social Security, expand Medicare, reallocate education spending, create welfare-to-work programs and increase safeguards for nuclear weapons in Russia.
Republican Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins said it remains to be seen whether the president can find the money to pay for his new spending proposals, and they expressed concern that some of his policy initiatives could unnecessarily expand the federal government’s role.
“The president outlined many programs that coincide with the Republican agenda in the Senate,” Collins said in an interview after the speech. “We may disagree about what exactly the solutions to our problems in education are, but we agree in increasing funding for education.
“But his budget didn’t include details for how he’ll finance these initiatives, so while they sound very attractive, I’ll reserve judgment until I know they will be paid for,” Collins said.
Snowe echoed that sentiment.
“The president once again delivered a fine speech, laying out a set of priorities that mesh well with those already articulated by Congress,” Snowe said. “I am concerned that the president’s proposals call for considerable new spending without delineating the offsetting funding sources.”
Snowe, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, said she will make sure the president’s budget proposal includes provisions to save the Social Security retirement system when it is submitted in February.
Snowe said she is skeptical of the plan the president announced Tuesday night that would tie federal school funding to performance. Under Clinton’s proposal, the federal government would withhold money from schools that fail to demonstrate that they are improving.
“Though I welcome the president’s commitment to education, I have serious concerns about the expanded federal role the president envisions in seeking to improve local schools,” Snowe said. “The federal government should not dictate requirements to local schools by threatening to withhold funding; instead, it should assist them in improving education through positive incentives.”
Maine’s two representatives, Democrats John Baldacci and Tom Allen, applauded Clinton for his interest in Social Security and health care reform, issues they said are of special importance to Maine because of the state’s large population of pensioners and people without health insurance.
Allen said he thinks Republican worries about how the president will pay for his ambitious agenda are not grounded. Clinton “always has been good about paying for what he proposes,” Allen said.
“I can’t tell you how satisfying and refreshing it is to listen to public policy proposals for an hour and a half designed to fix issues faced by ordinary Americans,” Allen said. “We have been diverted from doing these jobs effectively since mid-August.”
Allen said he was pleased that the president suggested increased spending to help senior citizens pay for prescription drugs, a plan Allen has vocally supported in the past.
Baldacci said the president’s agenda balances traditional Democratic and Republican priorities in a way that will help needy Maine residents without creating government waste.
“As a small-business person and somebody who has been a moderate to conservative Democrat, I think [Clinton] has moved the country in the right direction,” Baldacci said. “If we are going to stick to our priorities and make investments in the future, we’ll need to shrink the size of government and reduce the bureaucracy, but in a thoughtful way that doesn’t neglect people’s health and safety or the environment.
“He has brought about the right balance,” Baldacci said.
But Baldacci said lawmakers will need to scrutinize the president’s plan to increase military spending to ensure that money is not wasted on unnecessary projects. In the past, Baldacci has criticized Republican plans to build a costly missile defense system.