Acid Test for Clinton

PRESIDENT Clinton is getting a lesson in the art of compromise, Capitol Hill style, and it could be a politically costly one.

The inability of the White House and the Democratic majority in the United States Senate to push through the president's $16.3 billion job-producing bill over a Republican filibuster, as of April 6, slows the momentum of the Clinton agenda and projects an image of futility that does not bode well for other, pressing Democratic initiatives.

The Democrats would have liked to start the Easter recess - already delayed - with the jobs legislation and several related bills wrapped up. But the 16-senator Democratic majority was recognized at the outset as a possible stumbling block.

At last count, it actually appeared that one dissident Democrat - Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama - could keep his party from getting the two-thirds vote it needed.

The jobs-stimulus bill is at the heart of Clinton's agenda for maneuvering the nation out of its economic doldrums. Having planted his flag on this structure, the president might now appear to have put too much emphasis on the omnibus program. He appears to have given the Republicans a large political target to shoot at in anticipation of coming elections.

Within one week, Clinton has lost some of the luster with which he moved into the White House. It began with his withdrawal of plans to insert into the federal budget new higher fees for private use of public resources in the West. Environmentalists were highly displeased; and the president was given little or no thanks from the beneficiaries for making the change. A promise to at least raise some fees administratively did little to soothe critics.

To make appearances worse, Clinton had to hastily remove a debt-limit provision from the economic package and have it passed by Congress. It provides the federal government $225 billion in borrowing power through Sept. 30. The action made it possible to keep the government's credit rating from falling and to assure that Social Security checks would be sent out.

If the deadlock in the Senate continues, the Senate is expected to at least approve some $4 billion in continuing benefits to Americans who have been unemployed for long periods.

There is, of course, much remaining approbation for Clinton - at least for his effort to move quickly to meet the nation's needs. But it also is very likely that the apparent failure to recognize and take countermeasures to avert what appears to have been a political defeat will not raise the president's popularity ratings.

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