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Clinton Takes On GOP Contract in Midwest Trip

TIMES STAFF WRITER

President Clinton, seeking to regain the offensive in his battle with the Republican-led Congress, journeyed to the nation’s midsection on Tuesday to appeal for public support for his “middle-class bill of rights.”

In a tone close to pleading, Clinton asked a small-town audience to remember that some federal programs are worth keeping, despite the enthusiasm of his GOP critics for budget-cutting.

“There are still problems for the federal government to solve,” he said, citing the relief effort that followed the disastrous 1993 floods that ravaged the Midwest.

Speaking to an audience of teachers, students and local officials at Carl Sandburg Community College here, the President said: “We have to have some changes in what we expect our government to do but . . . I think our purpose will be to keep the American dream alive.”

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Aides said that the speech was only the first of a series Clinton is planning to promote his alternatives to the “contract with America” of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), even though they acknowledged that many of their proposals are likely to die at the hands of the GOP-controlled Congress.

Clinton even referred to his own program as “my version of the ‘contract with America,’ ” a backhanded acknowledgment of Gingrich’s success at defining the terms of the debate.

Aides said that the President’s campaign for his economic proposals, first made in December, was aimed both at boosting the Democrats’ chances of making some impact in domestic policy debates in the House and Senate and at redefining Clinton’s image.

Polls taken both before and after the November election found that many voters view Clinton as a big-spending President, despite his efforts to cut the federal budget deficit. And so Clinton spent much of his day in this western Illinois college town declaring his enthusiasm for smaller government.

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“We do not need all these federal programs telling you what to do,” Clinton said. Instead of setting up complicated job training schemes, he said, “we ought to just give you the money.”

And he emphasized another traditionally Republican theme that also was supposed to define his creed as a “new Democrat"--the idea that recipients of welfare or other government aid “have responsibilities as well as rights.”

That argument impressed at least one Republican in the audience. “He made a lot of sense, especially that part about people taking responsibility for themselves,” said Sandra Fisk, a 47-year-old registered nurse. “That’s what I talk to my kids about.”

Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who accompanied the President, made the middle-class point with a harder edge, as he has frequently in recent weeks: “There is a difference between the approach the President is taking and the approach the Republicans are taking,” he said, charging that GOP economic programs are aimed at benefiting the wealthy.

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Clinton and Reich outlined more details of their proposed job retraining program. They said the plan would combine 53 existing job training programs into one plan that would give unemployed and low-income workers “skill grants” of as much as $2,620 per year for any training of their choice.

The skill grant program would cost an estimated $3.5 billion per year, officials said, an amount that would fund more than 300,000 trainees. They said they were optimistic about its prospects because two Republican committee leaders, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) and Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.), have supported similar ideas in the past.


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