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Babbitt Defends Means Testing Proposal

June 21, 1987 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Democratic presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt on Sunday defended his controversial proposal for means testing Social Security benefits, saying federal programs must stop ″spraying government largess across all sectors of the society.″

The former Arizona governor suggested his ″strong and even radical concept″ of universal means testing should win support even from liberals, a heretical idea to some listening to his speech at the Americans for Democratic Action.

And Babbitt said means testing - which links benefits to family incomes - should be applied to many federal programs, from farm subsidies to mortgage interest deductions for second homes.

″That’s an expenditure and we can’t afford it. It reflects a lack of moral passion when we subsidize those kind of expenditures in a world there are so many needs,″ he told a lunchtime session at the annual ADA meeting. ″We can longer afford to help the people who need it by spraying government largess across sectors of society.″

Babbitt, calling himself a ″liberal Democrat,″ got a generally warm reception from the best-known national liberal organization, but his means testing ideas got a cool response.

″That’s the area in which he’s going to have real problems with the liberal commmunity,″ said Rep. Ted Weiss, the New York Democrat who is president of ADA. ″I hear a dramatic resentment to the taxation of even half of the benefits. Babbitt’s plan will create an outcry.″

Babbitt’s appearence wrapped up the final day of the three-day ADA session, which also included a breakfast speech by Rep. Richard Gephardt, the Missouri Democrat seeking the party’s 1988 nomination.

Both candidates dealt with a wide range of topics in their presentations and in 30-minute question-and-answer sessions. Both criticized the Reagan administration on a variety of issues, including the current unrest in South Korea.

″In South Korea, ... we need to be sending the right message of what kind of change we want to see and hope for,″ Gephardt said. ″Instead of the president trying to invisible, he should be speaking out.″

Babbitt said Reagan’s position on a federal budget can be described in three letters: ″l-i-e.″

The Arizona politician said he supports both executive orders and new federal laws to outlaw discrimination against homosexuals based on their sexual preference. Gephardt said that if changes in the administration of civil rights laws are not adequate, ″then I am for making the laws sufficient to the task.″

The most controversial feature of Babbitt’s means testing proposal would double the taxation of current benefits for higher-income Americans.

Currently, half of Social Security benefits are taxed for individuals with incomes above $25,000 and couples, above $32,000. Babbitt would subject all the benefits to federal taxes.

He said he would use the money to raise Supplemental Security Income payments, which offer welfare assistance to the elderly, enough to bring the elderly at least up to the poverty line.

″I ask you to join me in advocating that kind of liberal position,″ he said.

Babbitt also said he would announce within a few weeks a plan to provide universal medical care for all children.

Gephardt advocated increased funding for education, training and medical care to plug what he called the gaps in current federal and state programs.

Both Babbitt and Gephardt called for strong action against the apartheid government of South Africa. Babbitt drew applause when he called for limited recognition by the United States - ″establishing diplomatic liaison″ - with the African National Congress and the South African trade union movement. The ANC is outlawed by South Africa as a terrorist group.