WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Clinton often rails against "the special interests" that he says will try to defeat the economic plan he presented to Congress Feb. 17. But the White House has recruited some "special interests" of its own to help pass the president's proposals.
Before Mr. Clinton's nationally televised address, aides at the White House and the Democratic National Committee met with representatives of dozens of interest groups - ranging from the Child Welfare League of America to the Environmental Defense Fund. These groups traditionally have supported the Democratic Party.
David Wilhelm, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, previewed the president's proposals for the liberal interest groups and urged them to contact congressmen, members of the news media, and community leaders in support of the economic plan, says Catherine Moore, the party's communications director.
"They said: `If you support the package, if what we're doing is what you identify as the needs of your constituents, say so, because other groups won't like it,' " says one of the participants in those meetings, Judith Lichtman of the Women's Legal Defense Fund.
Opponents of the president's plan got an early start Feb. 17, when the offices of Republican legislators, such as Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Paul Coverdell of Georgia, were inundated by calls opposed to the proposed tax hikes.
But the White House appears determined to avoid the mistake it made during last month's flap over gays in the military, when the president and his supporters in the homosexual community appeared to be caught off guard by a massive tide of public opposition. So the Democratic Party has mobilized its own lobbyists to counter the efforts of senior citizens, business groups, and other interests opposed to parts of Clinton's economic plan.
The grass-roots activity started on the night of Feb. 17 when hundreds of "house parties" sponsored by the Democratic Party were held around the country to watch Clinton's address.
The White House, of course, will not label its supporters as "special interest" groups, but that is what they are, says Tobe Berkovitz, a Democratic political consultant. "If they support the other side, you call them special interests. If they support your side, you don't," he says.
Whatever name they go under, the groups recruited by Clinton's aides represent a force in Washington politics. These include:
* Environmentalists. A number of the country's largest environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have formed a coalition to support the president's proposals.
Environmentalists are supportive because the president's $31 billion stimulus package includes funding for mass-transit projects and energy efficiency, says Bill Roberts, a spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund. Above all, environmentalists back the president's proposed energy tax, which they hope will cut pollution.
* Labor unions. Earlier in the week, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich traveled to Bal Harbour, Fla., where the AFL-CIO is holding its annual winter meeting, to woo the unions. On Feb. 16, Lane Kirkland, president of the 14-million member AFL-CIO, said his group "will do its level best to be strongly supportive" of the president's package.
"Our members will go along as long as wealthier people make their contribution," says Charmayne Marsh, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers.
But so far, says Candice Johnson of the AFL-CIO, labor leaders have not formulated a strategy to back Clinton's plan.
* Feminists and "children's" advocates. Liberal groups that lobby on women's and children's issues are supportive because Clinton's program includes full funding for Head Start, an earned-income tax credit, money for job training, and an expanded program to immunize children. And, like many other interest groups, they are simply impressed that the White House took the time to court them.
"They're putting on a full-court press to garner support," says David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America. "It's great. They're reaching out to us."