KWAME HOLMAN: President Clinton's seventh and final State of the Union address was his longest, lasting 89 minutes, interrupted some 120 times by mostly partisan applause. (Applause) But if the President had been limited to just one sentence last night, he might have chosen this one:
PRESIDENT CLINTON: My fellow Americans, the state of our union is the strongest it has ever been. (Applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: Mr. Clinton supported that broad statement by highlighting what he considered the major accomplishments achieved after seven years in office.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We begin the new century with over 20 million new jobs, the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years, the lowest unemployment rates in 30 years, the lowest poverty rates in 20 years, the lowest African American and Hispanic unemployment rates on record, the first back-to-back budget surpluses in 42 years. And next month, America will achieve the longest period of economic growth in our entire history. (Applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: But the President went on to warn that those achievements were not enough, that there was more to do, and he challenged the Congress to act during the final year of his presidency.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Of course, you can't gain ground if you're standing still. And for too long this Congress has been standing still on some of the most pressing national priorities. So, let's begin tonight with them. Again, I ask you to pass a real patient's bill of rights. (Applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: From that first legislative request issued early in speech until he concluded well over an hour later, the President walked the listening audience through an ambitious list of programs and initiatives, all that come with a price tag.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Tonight I ask you for another $1 billion for Head Start, a landmark $30 billion college opportunity tax cut, $110 million initiative to promote economic development in the Delta. Our proposal would allow families with three or more children to get up to $1100 more in tax relief, my recommendation of an unprecedented $3 billion in the 21st century research fund …. the largest increase in civilian research in a generation. We owe it to our future! (Applause)
KWAME HOLMAN: One Senate Democrat later said that in his last State of the Union address the President had proposed every great idea he had left. But another Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said they were ideas Americans wanted to hear.
DICK DURBIN: What the President addressed himself to t his evening are the basic things you hear when you speak to American families. How are we going to improve education in America? What can you do about people who don't have health insurance? How can you make the schools more safe for the kids? I mean, these are things that people talk about in their in their family rooms. And the President touched on these issues and challenged Congress to do something about them.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Republican Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, was somewhat amused by all the President had proposed.
KWAME HOLMAN: Senator, as Budget Chairman, did you have your calculator out?
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: I did. I did. Actually, for the last three weeks, we've been following each new program as they announced it. And so we added them up. And then we took into account his new prescription drug program, which we added to that, and believe it or not, this is the most expensive speech -- costly wise -- ever delivered in mankind's history. This speech cost in new programs, $4 billion per minute. I don't know if there are very many people left in America that need anything after this litany of things we're going to plan to do.
KWAME HOLMAN: Michigan Republican Joe Knollenberg has a seat on the House Appropriations Committee.
REP. JOE KNOLLENBERG: I think what we have is another huge wish list. I wish the President had listened to what he said last year, because, frankly, that's what he wished for last year, was a huge number of initiatives. Now, that didn't happen; none of those things happened, and we're back at the same old track again. He's saying the same things, asking for more money. For an appropriator it's going to be very difficult to even consider but a small number of those initiatives.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: This may be the year that, the time of the year that we pause and we pause and do whatever we have to do -minimalistic -- and then we will let either of the new Presidents start with a grand plan.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Maryland's Steny Hoyer, a member of the House Democratic leadership, said there's no reason to lower expectations during the President's final year.
REP. STENY HOYER: I don't think this President is a minimalist President. And I don't agree with Sen. Domenici, that what our country needs is a minimalist approach. we have a tremendous opportunity to the overwhelming majority of Americans who have been very successful to make sure that their children are equally successful and to make sure that those Americans who have not enjoyed this prosperity do so.
KWAME HOLMAN: John Lewis is a Democrat from Georgia.
REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, this is an election year, and I think we've got to leave here doing something. And those things that we can agree on, maybe it would be a patients' bill of rights, prescription drugs, minimum wage, I don't know why we couldn't come together in a bipartisan fashion and provide these simple changes for the American people. I think we have to do something. We cannot leave here being accused of being a do-nothing Congress.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Republican James Rogan of California wasn't convinced all members want to work toward a common goal. Rogan said the enthusiasm Democrats displayed during the President's speech won't necessarily be there when it comes time to vote.
REP. JAMES ROGAN: Our concern is with some of the more bitter partisans in the chamber, that really don't want to fix. They just want an issue. They want to slow down the system. They want to clog the system. We saw that happen last year. I had Democratic buddies of mine, colleagues who told me that members of their leadership have said we don't want a fix. We want an issue moving into the 2000 election. That is not responsible governing.
KWAME HOLMAN: President Clinton's last State of the Union address was the first in years not delivered under political or personal strife. Following the speech, fellow Democrats said Mr. Clinton will leave a phenomenal record of achievement in strengthening the nation's economy. Many Republicans didn't disagree, but they also said they doubted much would be added to Mr. Clinton's legacy during the final year of his presidency.