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`CONSTITUTION GIVES ME RELEVANCE'

Playing to television's equivalent of a near-empty house, President Clinton disputed the notion that he's irrelevant in the Republican-dominated political debate. But GOP leaders charged Wednesday that Clinton "vacated the field" by failing to assert leadership.

"The Constitution gives me relevance, the power of our ideas gives me relevance, the record we have built up over the last two years and the things we're trying to do to implement it give me relevance," Clinton said forcefully at a news conference Tuesday night when asked about the major TV networks' lack of interest in the East Room event.But Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas said Wednesday, "It was pretty extraordinary to have the man who holds the most powerful office in the world talking about the fact that he was relevant, that the Constitution made him relevant, that he was assuring people basically that he was still part of the process."

Gramm, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, said on "CBS This Morning" that "I felt the president's statements about being relevant were the most extraordinary statements I've heard a president make since Jimmy Carter gave the `malaise' speech."

Clinton, who has been eclipsed by the burst of activity from the GOP-led Congress in its first 100 days, told the television audience that "I am willing to work with Republicans. The question is, are they willing to work with me?"

House Majority Leader Dick Armey said Wednesday that if Clinton "wants to demonstrate his willingness, he needs to come off the political trail and get on the policy trail and come work with us. We're very anxious to see him. We're anxious to see him engaged in the process rather than stand on the sidelines and criticize.

"Since he vacated the field, we obviously had to move forward with our work," Armey said on CNN.

To the disappointment of the White House, CBS was the only one of the "Big Three" networks to carry his prime-time news conference live; CNN and C-SPAN did too. ABC and NBC showed hit sitcoms, instead, on grounds that Clinton's East Room appearance wouldn't be particularly newsworthy.

The president, in fact, did not break major new ground in what was just the fourth prime-time news conference of his 27-month presidency. He said he deserved to be re-elected president, he challenged Republicans to put a welfare-reform bill on his desk by July 4 and he said he was sympathetic to Americans' frustration about the tax system but didn't see any good proposals to change it.

The flat tax, espoused mostly by Republicans, would give unfair tax breaks to Americans with incomes above $200,000 and raise taxes for people making less than that, Clinton said.

"We can't explode the deficit and we can't be unfair," he said, adding that, "The studies are not promising on the proposals that are out there now."

Clinton has proposed a welfare reform measure that would require people to return to work within two years to keep receiving benefits, and which would provide vouchers for job retraining. He criticized a GOP-sponsored bill as "too weak and too tough on children." It would deny cash welfare benefits to teenage mothers.

Uncharacteristically, Clinton kept his answers short, allowing room for more questions than usual.

He grinned broadly when a correspondent invited him to finish the sentence beginning, "I believe I should be re-elected president in 1996 because . . ."

With no hesitation, Clinton replied, "I believe I should be re-elected because I have done what I have said I would do, because we have got good results, because the policies that I now advocate, most importantly, will address the outstanding problems of the country."

Two days after Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said he might not allow a vote on Dr. Henry Foster's nomination as surgeon general, Clinton said he will "go to the mat" to win confirmation. "I think he (Foster) knows that it will be difficult. I think that he has been warned repeatedly."

On a foreign policy dispute with Russia and China, Clinton argued that it is not in best interests of either country to sell nuclear technology to Iran, suspected of trying to acquire nuclear weapons.

On other subjects, Clinton:

- Said former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's newly published memoirs should not be used to open old wounds over the Vietnam War. Three decades after the fact, McNamara wrote that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was "terribly wrong."

"I believe our policy was incorrect. I believe the book supports that conclusion," said Clinton, who had demonstrated against the war as a student and successfully evaded the draft.

- Insisted that it wasn't the proper time to "launch a re-evaluation" of the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II or to apologize to Japan. "President Truman did the right thing," he said.

- Said the United States supports a strong dollar, but that "in the present climate, the government's ability to affect currency in the short run may be limited." Despite the greenback's plunge against German and Japanese currencies, Clinton called the U.S. economy fundamentally sound.

- Said "we're not on the edge of a breakthrough" in peace talks between Syria and Israel but said that does not mean there's an impasse.

- Announced he was granting Montana and Missouri waivers from federal rules to give them more flexibility in adopting welfare programs of their own. That brings to 27 the number of states with such waivers.