Contentious Foley Vows To Fight -- Speaker Blames Economic Ills On Gop Policies

WASHINGTON - House Speaker Tom Foley gave no quarter when presenting the Democratic Party's confrontational response to President Bush's State of the Union address last night.

"We will . . . stand our ground," said the Washington state Democrat, vowing to fight the Republican White House on a dozen or more contentious issues, including taxes, civil rights, abortion, trade and health care.

Since being named speaker 2 1/2 years ago, Foley has been criticized in his own party for not being tough enough on Bush and not leading the Democrats to an alternative vision on where the nation should be headed.

But at the beginning of a presidential-election year, Foley indicated he will give up his conciliatory role.

"I speak for the Democratic Party," Foley said, "but I also speak for working families and the middle class, for those who worked hard to move ahead but now find themselves falling behind."

The Democrats in Congress, Foley said, "seek a fundamental change from the unsuccessful economic policies of the past 12 years."

"When we say a middle-class tax cut, we mean exactly that. Not more of the tax cuts of the 1980s, which gave most of the benefits to the very few. . . . We will insist that this time the benefits must go to working families, not the privileged."

"This should be America's high noon," Foley said. "But instead . . . we face an ominous, persistent recession (where) nations whose freedom we protected in the past continue to surpass us in high-paying jobs and the industries of the future."

Foley, who spoke for about 12 minutes, hit quickly and hard on the issues of unemployment, noting that Bush - who last night pledged to extend unemployment benefits - had congressional efforts to pass an unemployment-benefits extension three times last year before he finally signed it.

"The urgent, overriding task of 1992 is to restore growth and jobs," Foley said. "For too long, we were told to wait, that things would get better on their own. There was even an effort to talk us out of the recession or to tell us that it wasn't really happening at all. But the truth finally became all too painful.

"The supply-side, trickle-down decade of the 1980s led to an economy in decline and left us with a national administration adrift in domestic policy, seemingly without ideas and without apparent commitment or energy to move America ahead."

Repeatedly, the normally soft-spoken Foley blamed Republican policies of the past 12 years for the current decline.

Foley had said before the president's speech that Bush would have to come forward with tax plans that go beyond his repeated call for capital-gains-tax cuts.

"Two-thirds of all the money from capital gains (reductions) would go to the richest 1 percent of Americans," Foley said.

Foley said Democrats "will seek common ground with the president and the Republicans." But he added that "we will also stand our ground when basic principles are at stake." Among those, he said, are abortion rights and civil rights.

Foley also took on Bush's proposal to suspend for 90 days any new federal regulations that might hinder the growth of business.

"During the past two administrations, there have been consistent efforts to undo government protection of public health and safety," Foley said. "Today, the hurt of the unemployed is no excuse to undermine regulatory rules that protect their families and all of us from pollution, deceptive advertising, unsafe food and medicine, workplace injury and death. This is not a way to create jobs or make American business prosperous."

-- Information from the Boston Globe is included in this report.