President Clinton struggled Sunday to distance himself from a memorandum, sent to him by his budget director and leaked to the press, in which a bevy of new taxes and cuts in Medicare and Social Security are listed as "illustrative options" for future economic policy.
The disclosure _ barely two weeks before midterm elections _ stirred glee among Republicans, who immediately asserted that Clinton was plotting to skirt promises to leave Social Security and Medicare benefits alone.
The White House first defended itself with a statement from chief of staff Leon Panetta, insisting that the memorandum was but a "catalog" of proposals from elsewhere, and not a policy document. But Sunday night in Seattle, the president paused during a weekend of campaigning to offer his personal explanation.
"I do not support cuts in Social Security, and I believe any savings we achieve in the Medicare program should be used in health care," Clinton said. "That has always been my position. There is nothing in that memo and nothing in the record which should indicate that I have changed my position on these two fundamental issues."
The president said the memorandum arose from internal talks about the imminent report of a presidential commission on entitlement spending, headed by Sens. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and John C. Danforth, R-Mo., and about the Republicans' "Contract with America," a political tract that commits the party to cut taxes while simultaneously balancing the federal budget.
The denials did not wash with Republicans, who were given the memorandum by an anonymous federal worker late last week.
"Hypocrisy is the word that comes to mind, as it occasionally does with this administration," said William Kristol, a top adviser to former Vice President Dan Quayle and now head of a political research organization called the Project for the Republican Future.
Kristol said he gave a copy of the memo to the Washington Post, which reported on it Sunday.
The Oct. 3 document, from budget director Alice Rivlin and titled "Big Choices," bears the earmarks of a political working paper. Marked "draft" and "for handout and retrieval in meeting," it is written on unmarked white paper.
In it, Rivlin said that the decisions made in 1996 budget preparations that begin this week will be crucial to Clinton's re-election. And she suggested that officials make difficult decisions soon if they hope either to control the federal deficit, which is projected to begin rising again in 1996, or to free additional money for the president's domestic agenda.
The paper outlines an "illustrative range of packages" for the future economic course. They range from continuing present policies and allowing the deficit to rise again, to making a commitment to erase the deficit by the year 2000 _ which, over five years, would require $689-billion in new taxes or spending cuts, or both.
The memo ended by stating that the options are "illustrative packages that may serve to start our discussion." Senior officials insisted they were nothing more.