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President Clinton, laying the foundation for a meeting with the new Republican leaders of Congress, said Friday he would oppose any attempt to repeal a ban on assault weapons or any tax-cut proposals "that will explode the deficit."

"I hope and believe we can cooperate with the new Congress," the president said. "But cooperation from me cannot mean abandoning principle."Clinton made his remarks in a speech broadcast to the annual conference of the National League of Cities, meeting in Minneapolis. It came shortly before he was to meet at the White House with Republican Sen. Bob Dole, the incoming majority leader, and Rep. Newt Gingrich, the next House speaker.

The president's comments about cooperation reflected the same guarded theme that Gingrich has taken. Gingrich has promised to cooperate but not to compromise on his principles.

The president received warm wards from a mayor from North Carolina, the state where GOP Sen. Jesse Helms said the president was so unpopular he needed a bodyguard.

Louisburg Mayor Lucy Allen told Clinton "the red carpet will always be out should you choose to visit." Clinton laughed and declared, "I've always felt especially safe in North Carolina."

Helms, incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, later said he regretted making the remark.

Democrats and Republicans alike are pressing for enactment of middle-class tax cuts next year, feeding fears that both sides will try to outdo each other with politically popular cuts.

"So, while I favor a middle-class tax cut and I don't rule out working with the Republican Congress on some of their ideas," Clinton said, "my standard will be: Will it help increase incomes for the middle class, will it promote jobs and growth and can we pay for it."

Saying that Congress has to come to grips with the budgetary consequences of its action, Clinton warned, "We're going to have to cut a lot of spending up here."

He said he could not predict what Congress would enact in the way of taxes, but added, "I want greater tax fairness, I want to do something that increases middle-class incomes, I want a dividend from the end of the Cold War and the downsizing of the federal government."

The Contract with America signed by House GOP candidates last year called for, among other things, a $500-per-child tax credit and a reduction in capital gains taxes.

Clinton said the Republicans' proposals would cost several hundred billion dollars.

The president said the assault weapon ban enacted last year over opposition from the National Rifle Association "stands between the citizens you and I must protect and the gangs and thugs.

"I will do all in my power to keep the next Congress from doing anything that will jeopardize the safety of our people," Clinton said. "I truly hope the new Congress understands how important these things are to the American people."