Congressional Democrats plan to go door-to-door across America to push a "families first" legislative package aimed squarely at winning middle-class voters and retaking Capitol Hill.
The Democratic agenda, in the works for months and rolled out Sunday in a five-city virtual town meeting, is the minority party's answer to the "Contract With America" that helped the GOP win control of Congress in 1994.President Clinton, meanwhile, proposed that workers be allowed to take "flex-time" on their jobs as well as unpaid leave for school activities or family affairs.
The president said in a speech in Nashville, Tenn., he would propose new legislation that would allow employees to take up to 80 hours of time off as flex time and up to 24 hours a year in unpaid leave for family matters such as parent-teacher conferences, doctor appointments or tending to elderly parents.
In promoting the proposed tax breaks and health, education and crime programs, House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt implored Americans to give the Democrats "another chance to lead" the nation.
"Democrats have an obligation to tell the American people not just what we stand against, but what we stand for," the Missouri congressman said in opening the 75-minute program from the Old Town Hall here. "You see, Democrats don't want to merely win back the gavel. We want to deserve it."
"I think people do want to know what you're going to do. You can't win an election simply describing what's wrong with the other side," Gephardt said this morning on NBC's "Today."
"We've got to show people. You give us the chance, we'll show 'em," he said.
Republicans denounced the proposals as "tiny ideas from tiny minds."
"I know that anytime a dozen Democrats can agree on anything it makes news," said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Republican Conference. "The American people are smart enough to see this election year rhetoric for what it is: visionless hot-air."
Rep. Jon Christensen, R-Neb., said Democrats, "treat campaign promises like disposable cups. . . . They'll crumple up this un-Contract and throw it on the trash heap of history with the rest of their outdated ideas."
Gephardt conceded that in years past Democrats didn't do enough to address Americans' everyday problems, causing voter dissatisfaction that helped Republicans take over both houses of Congress in 1994.
"The bottom line is that Democrats are asking for another chance to lead," he said, reaching audiences in Sacramento, Calif., Houston, Des Moines, Iowa and Dear-born, Mich.
The presentation, via satellite linking this Washington suburb and other sites nationwide, played like an "infomercial" with scripted questions from pre-selected citizens and answers from lawmakers. The product: a set of 21 initiatives, including several already proposed by President Clinton, aimed at helping the economically squeezed middle class.
Among the Democrats' proposals: tax breaks for parents to pay for child care; requiring private insurance companies to provide "kids-only" health plans; stiffer penalties for corporate pension abuses; cracking down on "deadbeat" parents by giving states new tools to enforce child support orders and collect payments; creating a national effort to prevent teen pregnancy and holding corporations responsible for keeping drinking water and air clean.
The Republicans' Contract With America - including the key promise of balancing the nation's budget within seven years - won handily in the House, but most items have foundered in the Senate or were vetoed by Clinton.
"While Republicans have spent the last 20 months pushing their far-right agenda in Congress, we've been out listening to Americans," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, playing co-host with Gephardt.