WASHINGTON — THE most serious domestic political challenge of Bill Clinton's young presidency comes to a head this week in the United States Senate.
Democratic leaders today will try once again to halt a Republican filibuster that is blocking President Clinton's $16.3 billion jobs program to jump-start the American economy.
The Senate was supposed to be on Easter recess this week. Instead, Republicans, angered by what they call the Democrats' "steamroller" tactics, are using their 43 votes in the Senate to keep the filibuster going.
The White House and leading Democrats have responded angrily. Senate majority leader George Mitchell of Maine accuses the GOP of practicing "the politics of gridlock."
GOP members are furious with Democratic leaders, especially Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, for imposing rules that restrict amendments to the stimulus bill. But Republican opposition clearly goes beyond the jobs package. For years, Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, have felt as if they are "an abused minority," in the words of Sen. Alan Simpson (D) of Wyoming.
This year, Democratic leaders have put every significant measure onto the House floor with a closed rule that denies Republicans any opportunity to offer amendments. Such unprecedented hardball tactics leave Republicans feeling helpless, even when they have amendments they think would draw significant support from many Democrats.
In his regular, five-minute radio address on Saturday, Mr. Clinton asked Americans to put pressure on the Senate to act on the economic package.
Yet Republicans show zero signs of yielding. So long as their 43 votes hold firmly, they can prevent Democrats from putting together the 60 votes they need to end the filibuster - their strongest remaining weapon - in the 100-member Senate.
Senator Simpson told a Monitor breakfast April 2 that among his fellow Republicans, "I've never seen more cohesion than right now at this moment."
While Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to stymie the Clinton jobs package, Republicans counter that they are simply trying to remove the "pork," or wasteful spending.
The problem is "pork-lock," not gridlock, says Republican minority leader Robert Dole of Kansas. With all the pork, the Clinton bill is not a stimulus, "this is a downer," Senator Dole says. "We can do better."
Senator Simpson says several parts of the package are attractive to both Republicans and Democrats. They include extended compensation for jobless workers, some of the summer jobs programs, immunization for children, and some of the highway projects. On the other hand, the package also includes many specific projects, like a road in a cemetery and improvements to parks, that create few jobs at very high prices - sometimes $100,000 or more per job.
Republicans charge that such spending is wasteful and will backfire on the president when Americans see their money being spent carelessly. GOP senators are also upset because the stimulus package adds to the deficit, rather than being paid for with savings elsewhere.
Democrats say the jobs package cannot be judged in isolation. It is only a small part of a huge, five-year economic program which also includes significant cutbacks in other areas.
The White House worries that with unemployment stuck at 7 percent, with consumer confidence waning, and few jobs being created in the private sector, something like the $16.3 billion program is needed to give the weak recovery a kick.
On the Senate side, Republican anger bubbled over when Senator Byrd, a master parliamentarian, used the rules - as Democrats had in the House - to prevent any Republican amendments to the stimulus package.
"He stiffed us," Simpson complains.
Added to that is Republican dismay that Clinton, who had promised to consult with Republicans, now often seems to ignore them when important legislation is being drafted. That is a complaint heard now on the health care proposals being assembled by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Simpson says Republican senators are willing to skip vacations, cancel trips home, and just stay right here through the summer, if that's what it takes.
The GOP isn't trying to undermine Clinton's goals, he insists. Republicans just want a chance to vote on their own proposals without being steamrollered by the Democratic majority.