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Down on Starr, up on economy

With controlled anger, President Clinton questioned the conduct of Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr on Thursday and dismissed Republican challenges to his own character as "high level static." He doggedly refused to talk about Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton was more upbeat in proclaiming an "American economic renaissance" with low inflation and unemployment and rising wages. He said he hoped the stock market could avoid big swings but added "I'd rather it be going up than down in any big sense."

Composed but combative, the president spent nearly an hour in the East Room answering questions that kept returning to the Lewinsky matter, Starr's investigations and Republican criticism.

Asked if he might ask Attorney General Janet Reno to remove Starr, Clinton said, "That would not be an appropriate thing for me to do."

The president said he was willing, if necessary, to spend the rest of his term with the Lewinsky matter unresolved. "Absolutely," Clinton said.

Speaking of his critics, Clinton said, "They can affect my reputation. They can do nothing, for good or ill, to affect my character. Unfortunately, they can't make it any better either. They can't make it any better. They can't make it any worse. They can't have an impact on it."

Echoing his staff's theme that Starr is out of control, Clinton said the independent counsel "has an unlimited budget and can go on forever, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, spending $40-million today, $100-million tomorrow."

Clinton met with reporters after a barrage of attacks from House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who accused the president of stonewalling Starr and investigations of campaign finance irregularities. The president said Gingrich's criticism was nothing more than politics and would not get a response.

He said there was progress on a number of congressional fronts, with the Senate voting to expand NATO and moving on tobacco legislation.

He suggested that the American people send lawmakers "a clear signal" that they should work with the president.

On other matters, Clinton said:

+ He decided against using federal money for needle exchange programs to keep drug addicts from getting AIDS because the benefits are uncertain and he didn't want to imply that "somehow the government is empowering drug use."

+ He hopes that a national tobacco settlement will not get tied up in the 1998 midterm congressional elections. "The worst thing in the world would be to play politics with our children's health. I'm not going to do it and I hope no one else will."

+ He would not abide by any vote of the Organization of American States to reinstate Cuba. Clinton said that such a vote would be hypocritical since the OAS voted last year "to kick anybody out who abandoned democracy."