(CNSNews.com) - President Bill Clinton on Thursday opened his final State of the Union address with the declaration that "We are fortunate to be alive at this moment in history," and given the chance to build what he called "a more perfect union," a phrase coined by Abraham Lincoln.
Clinton entered the House chamber around 9:14 pm EST for his address, which opened with a list of social and economic conditions that have improved during the past decade, prompting Clinton to declare that the state of the union is "the strongest it has ever been."
The annual address before a joint session of Congress excluded all nine Supreme Court justices, who sent regrets earlier in the day that illness and schedule conflicts kept them from attending. Justices traditionally are in attendance for the State of the Union.
Vice President Al Gore took a break from his New Hampshire campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination to be seated at the dais behind Clinton, along with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), who introduced the president.
"Come on guys, sit down," Clinton said to the packed chamber, which erupted in prolonged applause upon his arrival.
Even before tonight's address to Congress by Clinton, House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich disclosed that he is aware of 132 new or increased government spending initiatives and tax preferences that would force Congress to either raise other taxes or spend money from the Social Security surplus.
"The President is suggesting using over $64 billion of the surplus in fiscal year 2001 alone. That's simply unacceptable," Kasich said.
"Instead of demanding Congress implement risky schemes to increase spending, the President should work with us to protect the Social Security surplus," Kasich added. "We've moved from an era of debt and deficits to an era of surplus. The last thing we should do is go on a Washington spending spree and threaten those gains."
Representative Tillie Fowler (R-FL), Vice Chairman of the House Republican Conference, didn't like Clinton's spending priorities.
"The President must have seen an advance copy of the new budget numbers showing an even greater budget surplus, because he has already figured out ways to spend it and then some," Fowler said.
"Part of Bill Clinton's legacy will be the notion that Santa Claus comes to town at the end of January instead of December. He has presented his list of goodies aimed at pleasing every constituency. Unfortunately, unlike Santa Claus, there will be price tags left on every one of his gifts," Fowler added.
US Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) responded to Clinton's State of the Union address by saying, "Clinton's proposed spending increases total $342 billion. This breaks down to about $1,300 for every man, woman and child in America. That comes to $5,000 for a family of four." Inhofe called Clinton's spending spree proposals "fraudulent".
"We have crossed the bridge we've built to the 21st century," Clinton said, echoing a common theme from his 1996 re-election campaign and setting the stage for what Clinton called a long look ahead.
Part of Clinton's long look ahead included a reprise of his failed federalized health care plan, which he alluded to in his call for "quality, affordable health care for all Americans."
Clinton then called on Congress to pass a raft of other traditional liberal programs, including a plan to permit more lawsuits over medical treatment, additional gun control laws and campaign finance reform, a topic harkening back to the campaign finance investigations surrounding his re-election campaign in 1996.
Representative Bob Barr (R-GA) criticized Clinton's address as a "laundry list of massive government programs."
"Instead of using our nation's current fiscal health to give Americans a tax cut and protect Social Security and Medicare, the President proposes to squander much of the surplus on new Washington bureaucracies. President Clinton also clearly doesn't intend to let the last year of his presidency slip by without further efforts to attack and erode the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans," Barr said. "Despite the voluminous evidence that gun control does not prevent crime, and may actually increase it, the President persists in catering to the anti-gun fringe of his party," Barr added.
Noting the federal education expenditure of $15 billion, Clinton spoke of doubling spending for after-school programs and Head Start, the pre-school program for young children.
The President also renewed his call for using federal money to hire local school teachers and to pay for structural repairs for 5,000 schools so they could be wired to the Internet.
On the higher education front, Clinton called for $30 billion in federal tax deductions for families paying college tuition and fees.
Clinton also made overtures toward increased federal involvement in health care, offering tax credits for health care for the elderly and programs to provide health insurance for children whose parents do not obtain it.
The issue of providing prescription drug benefits as part of the Medicare program for the elderly and disabled was raised, and Clinton said "we cannot let another year pass" without providing that benefit.
Clinton offered no estimate of the cost of these and other health care plans, saying only that it would amount to the largest expenditure for federal health care since Medicare and Medicaid were created by the Lyndon Johnson Administration in the mid-60s.
On the subject of Clinton's tax proposals, Representative James Traficant (D-OH) was critical.
"Once Again, the President's modest tax proposals fall short of the bold reforms necessary to keep our economy strong and vibrant well into the 21st century," Traficant said. "Rather than tinker on the margins of the current tax code, Congress and the President need to look outside the box and embrace bold action. I will continue to work to enact legislation to eliminate the federal income tax and replace it with a national retail sales tax," Traficant added.
Meanwhile, Inhofe said, "Clinton's proposal to eliminate the $3.6 trillion public debt by the year 2013 takes the cake for sheer unbelievability. He offers virtually nothing by way of down payment now while leaving all the heavy lifting until he is out of office. Then he proposes no less than $342 billion in increased spending," Inhofe said.
The President also made the point of stressing more gun control, using a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting spree in 1999 in doing so and telling Congress that more gun control should be "the very next order of business."
There also was a call for better enforcement of gun laws, with Clinton proposing fresh restrictions on gun ownership and methods to track gun owners and ways of perfecting so-called 'smart guns' that can only be fired by the owner.
Clinto urged fuller participation with Russia and China, including normalized trade relations with Beijing. But Clinton failed to take note of the current Russian offensive in Chechnya or China's successful efforts to take control of the Panama Canal. "No, we don't know where it's going," Clinton said, adding that it was his hope that China would "choose the right future."
Traficant said he supports most of the proposals Clinton announced but disagrees with the President on China.
"The President's policy on China has been an abysmal failure. Over the past seven years, America's trade deficit with China has grown by the tens of billions, resulting in thousands of lost jobs for US workers. The Clinton administration has granted concession after concession to China. Now the Administration wants to accord China permanent normal trade status (that) would make it even easier for cheap Chinese goods to flood our markets," Traficant said.
Clinton's entire State of the Union message took nearly an hour-and-a-half to deliver, by far the President's longest and most sweeping annual address to Congress during his eight-year term in office.