WASHINGTON -- With deadlines that won't be met, President Clinton is making an issue of what he can't get done in Congress, seeking to stir action on measures like gun control or, lacking that, to use complaints of Republican inaction against them in the 2000 campaign.
Clinton said there are pressing priorities ''languishing in Congress,'' and that delaying them is easy for the Republican majority but hard on other Americans.
It is a variation on the do-nothing Congress argument. The Democrats are sure to be raising that one later, when an election-year session that is probably not going to produce much yields to the fall campaign.
The deadline strategy is one Clinton has used before, most effectively on budget issues, when they're real deadlines. He made it part of his push for campaign finance reform in 1997, amid disclosures of Democratic excesses in raising funds for his 1996 campaign, saying Congress should rewrite the law by the Fourth of July.
''You know and I know that delay will mean the death of reform, so let's set our own deadline,'' he said. Campaign reform hasn't passed yet, and won't this year. Senate Republicans have blocked it, but neither party is willing to accept terms that might work to the advantage of the other.
In budget struggles dating from 1995, the first year of Republican rule in Congress, Clinton has used deadlines to effect, as opposition presidents, Ronald Reagan and George Bush among them, did against Democratic majorities.
The deadline for bills to finance the government is Sept. 30 each year, and Congress rarely meets it. So interim resolutions finance federal agencies while disputed spending measures are settled, and that gives any president the upper, veto, hand. He can demand that Congress tailor a budget acceptable to him, threatening vetoes and potential government shutdowns unless he gets it close to his way.
Clinton did that in 1995, when Republicans got the political blame for the partial federal shutdowns that followed. The episode was the beginning of his political revival after the Democratic defeats of 1994.
Since then, he has used the same pressure points to score budget points the Republicans wouldn't otherwise have yielded to him.
In this latest round, Clinton accused Congress of delays on ''the people's business,'' and urged action on gun control legislation, a minimum wage increase, a patients' bill of rights in managed health care and an emergency spending bill.
He said those measures are stalled and shouldn't be, with Congress due to take its spring recess after this week.
''So, let's get back on track,'' Clinton said. But there's more than timing involved; there are disputes between and within the parties on those measures. All but the spending bill have passed both the House and the Senate, but in different versions, which are stalled awaiting negotiations on final terms.
The House passed a patients' bill Clinton said he would sign, but the version the Senate passed includes lawsuit limits he warned he would veto.
Both branches of Congress passed a $1 increase in the $5.15 hourly minimum wage, but tied it to tax cuts Clinton said would lead him to veto the whole thing. He asked for a simple, clear minimum wage bill, and will probably get one in the end, but the Republicans don't want to yield their tax leverage at this point.
The gun legislation also is snagged in differences between the Senate bill Clinton wants and a less stringent version passed by the House.
House-Senate negotiators met once, last August, and have done nothing since, a standstill the White House blames on pressure from the National Rifle Association.
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