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Clinton Vows To Protect Education Programs, Cut Government

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President Clinton vowed in his State of the Union Message last week to fight conservative attacks on his education, student-loan, and national-service initiatives.

Mr. Clinton also used the 82-minute speech to reclaim the "New Democrat" label under which he campaigned for the Presidency. He urged government downsizing, middle-class tax cuts, and welfare reform--all mainstays of his 1992 platform--and reiterated his call for a grassroots campaign against teenage pregnancy.

The President and members of his Cabinet visited schools and universities around the country later in the week to drum up public support for the Administration's "Middle-Class Bill of Rights" and its education agenda.

But the overarching message in the Jan. 24 speech was a return to an old theme, as Mr. Clinton called for "a new social compact" between government and citizens.

"The old way divided us by interests, constituency, or class," the President said. "The New Cov~ena~nt way should unite us behind a common vision of what's best for our country."

Education reform has been a bright spot on Capitol Hill for Mr. Clinton. But several Administration programs that were enacted last year face cuts or even elimination under a new G.O.P. leadership eager to trim spending.

Fiscal Austerity

Like G.O.P. leaders, Mr. Clinton predicted an austere budgetary year, but indicated that education programs would be a priority in his fiscal 1996 budget, which he is set to unveil next week.

"Now my budget cuts a lot, but it protects education, veterans, Social Security, and Medicare, and I hope you will do the same thing," he said.

The President also challenged foes of the direct-loan program, an expanding effort that lets college students borrow money directly from the government through their colleges and bypass private lenders.

"University administrators all over the country have told me that they are saving weeks and weeks of bureaucratic time now because of our direct-college-loan program," he said.

But critics in Congress doubt Mr. Clinton's projection that the program will save $4.5 billion over five years. And House Republicans have introduced a bill that would reduce the proportion of new loans that could be made through direct lending.

"That will be one of the major differences. The President will put up a very strong opposition to a cap on direct lending," Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine M. Kunin told reporters last week.

Mr. Clinton has also included a new plan to make college more affordable--a goal that he links to the nation's economic success--in his Middle-Class Bill of Rights.

That plan would give families making up to $120,000 annually an income-tax deduction of up to $10,000 for college or job training; create a $500 tax credit for families with children under 13 and annual incomes up to $60,000; and allow tax-free withdrawals from individual retirement accounts for spending on education, health care, the purchase of a first home, or parental care.

The President's plan, which he said rewards people who "make the right choices," also would merge 70 job-training programs and shift funds to job-training vouchers worth up to $2,600. (See Education Week, Jan. 11, 1995.)

Service Support

Last week's address also erased any doubt about Mr. Clinton's support for national service. The President not only took time to praise the 20,000 current participants in the AmeriCorps program he championed, but arranged for four of them to sit in high-profile spots next to the First Lady during his speech.

"This is citizenship at its best," he said. ~"It's good for the AmeriCorps members, but it's good for the rest of us too."

Mr. Clinton's support comes at a crucial time, as some G.O.P. critics are talking about eliminating the program. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was recently quoted as calling the program "coercive volunteerism."

But Mr. Clinton is getting some G.O.P. help in the House. "We'll fight like hell to support it," Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., said at a news briefing last week.

In addressing welfare and illegitimacy, Mr. Clinton asked parents and community leaders to join a national campaign to fight teenage pregnancy, which he called "our most serious social problem." He first called for such a program last year, when he included it in his welfare-reform proposal. (See Education Week, June 22, 1994.)

"It is the President signaling a real emphasis on this problem," said William A. Galston, a deputy assistant to the President for domestic policy. "I think you can expect some action on this front in coming weeks."

Mr. Clinton included some strict words about young welfare mothers in his speech, saying they should live in supervised settings and finish school. He also endorsed suspending the driver's licenses of parents who do not pay child support.

But he disagreed with a G.O.P. plan to cut teenage and unwed mothers from welfare rolls.

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey gave the Republican response to Mr. Clinton's address. Speaking from the statehouse in Trenton, she encouraged Congress to continue the "revolution" that began with the Republican takeover of Congress in the November elections.

"President Clinton, you must accept it as well," she said. "Put the principles of smaller, more effective government into action. Reduce spending and cut taxes."

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