President Launches Campaign to Win Support for Drug War Strategy

Times Staff Writers

From the nursery of an inner city hospital where drug-addicted mothers have abandoned their babies, to the more conventional setting of a government auditorium, President Bush embarked Wednesday on an exhaustive campaign to sell his new drug war strategy to the nation.

"I'm challenging the Congress to give us bipartisan support in the implementation of this strategy and I'm looking to the grass-roots support of America's communities in the fight against drugs," the President told 50 police reporters and editors summoned to the White House from around the country.

With attention in Washington suddenly riveted on the flow of drugs into the nation's cities, suburbs and even its rural hamlets, a spate of competing proposals were debated and congressional Democrats worked to prevent an outpouring of popular support from closing out their options on drug strategy.

Democrats Say Plan Falls Short

"We need real resources and real results and I don't believe the President's plan goes far enough to produce them," said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), once a U.S. attorney in Maine, said: "What we must do now is meet the public demand for effective and prompt action. And that means putting our resources where our rhetoric is."

The $7.9-billion plan represents a $2.2-billion increase over last year.

Despite complaints that the Bush plan offered "too little, too late," Vice President Dan Quayle, in a luncheon with editors and reporters in The Times' Washington Bureau, predicted that "in due course the Congress will buy most of the President's program."

The Bush proposal is built around increased law enforcement, intensified efforts at halting the entry of drugs into the United States, drug treatment, and education about the dangers of drug abuse.

Aid for 'Crack Babies' Proposed

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Republicans proposed banning congressional junk mail and using the $45 million it costs for treatment of "crack babies" born to addicted mothers. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), was a response to criticism that the President had not proposed sufficient spending to win the drug war.

Wilson said that it would help treat 400,000 infants, or more than 10% of all live births, by halting mass mailings by members of Congress in the year starting Oct. 1.

The President's plan to focus his public attention and his travel almost exclusively in coming days on issues related to drug abuse, sets a course that offers few likely pitfalls.

"The President chose a safe issue to put his mark on," said Stuart E. Eizenstat, White House domestic policy chief during the Jimmy Carter Administration. "He preempted a major domestic issue with a rather conventional program but one that will satisfy the average American that something is being done."

Greg Schneiders, a Democratic political consultant and pollster, said: "I'm not sure this particular issue is looked at the same way by voters as the economy and crises in foreign policy. The whole drug thing, people understand, is pervasive and doesn't readily lend itself to federal solutions."

So, he said, "I don't think Bush will be credited if the problem goes away, or blamed if it doesn't. He's in a bit of a no-lose situation."

President Tours Nurseries

Barely 12 hours after he unveiled his anti-drug program, Bush visited the nurseries of the D.C. General Hospital. A television set broadcast the theme song of a sitcom rerun, babies wailed or greeted him with blank stares and officials told him that 20% of their patients are born to mothers who have abused cocaine.

Looking in on one infant who had tested positive for the AIDS antibodies, the President asked: "Does that baby have a chance to get well?"

"We don't know," said one of his guides, Dr. Stanley Sinkford, chairman of the hospital's pediatrics department.

The virus is often transmitted through the sharing of unsterilized hypodermic needles by intravenous drug abusers. Many infected women pass the virus to unborn children during pregnancy.

Later, the President said at the news conference:

"You really want to have a broken heart and feel something in your heart, go and see these little kids, some of whom are abandoned, some of whom are, or many of whom are born from, given birth to by mothers who are addicted to cocaine. And we've got to help in that area, and I believe we can do a job there."

Ambassadors Asked for Help

The President also appealed for support among a group of foreign ambassadors invited to the White House complex, telling them that "only through a broad, cooperative international effort can we reduce the foreign drug supply to our nation and to countries around the globe."

"So this really is a war that the United States cannot fight alone," he said.

But one Latin American diplomat said afterward that the President's proposal failed to address "the need to block export of weapons from U.S. and other industrialized countries to drug-exporting countries," and that it failed to focus attention on "synthetic drugs," among them LSD and amphetamines, produced in the United States.

Spending Levels Defended

Throughout the day--at the hospital and back at the White House--Bush found himself in a traveling debate of sorts with his critics, defending the spending level of $7.9 billion--an increase of $717 million over his original anti-drug budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1--and insisting that additional spending, funded through higher taxes, is not the answer.

"There has been little, if any, substantive criticism about this national strategy," he maintained in the news conference with reporters and editors who specialize on crime issues.

To the suggestion that greater taxes might be needed to provide more money for the anti-drug effort, Bush said: "I don't believe we have a drug problem because we aren't paying enough in taxes."

He dismissed his critics for "carping those partisan comments."

Congressional Critics Speak Up

Among the critics was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who said the Bush plan "falls dramatically short" in the areas of treatment and education. Kennedy would pay for it by eliminating two of 132 Stealth bombers to save $1 billion and get the rest from cuts in the Strategic Defense Initiative program to develop a ballistic missile defense system.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, complained that states and cities will have to put up substantially more funds for police, drug testing and prisons than they would receive in federal aid to combat drugs. "We've got to do a lot more," he said.

Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.) said Bush should have allocated more funds for interdiction of drugs entering the United States, since the Coast Guard, Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service are all "woefully undermanned" to deal with a $150-billion cocaine racket.

Staff writer Don Shannon contributed to this story.

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