PRESIDENT Clinton heads into the most difficult week of his young administration as the US House takes up the tax portion of his deficit-reduction package.
With a revolt under way among several Senate Democrats, which could have a bearing on the House vote, the president would do well to remember two concepts he helped reinforce during the campaign: "fair" and "shared."
The rebellion, led by Sens. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma and Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, while nominally focused on eliminating the president's proposed energy tax and capping automatic increases in entitlement spending, is as much about breaking free of tired formulas for dealing with deficits as it is about the clout of the energy lobby in Washington.
For years, Republicans have shunned - in rhetoric if not in fact - tax increases as a means of deficit reduction, while many Democrats have shied away from cuts or caps on the growth in entitlement programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which now make up roughly half the budget. Mr. Clinton's budget director, Leon Panetta, early recognized the need to overcome the impasse by noting that his preference would be to find $2 in cuts for every $1 in tax increases. Clinton's budget, as prop osed, offers $1 in tax increases for every $1 in spending cuts. Senator Boren's plan would bring the ratio closer to Mr. Panetta's, even if it does look like "politics as usual" for a senator from an energy state to find a reason not to support an energy tax.
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Clinton criticized his opponents, saying, "It's simply wrong for a powerful interest to try and opt out of this program."
Yet "powerful interests" also have been at work to maintain entitlement programs. Just as Clinton is correct in seeking sacrifice from special interests most affected by an energy tax, Boren and his colleagues also are correct to ask that spending cuts also be more fairly distributed across federal programs; all entitlements are not created equal.
Clinton's discomfort in the face of Boren's criticisms is understandable: They are forcing the president to confront not only his campaign promises ($3 dollar in cuts for each $1 in new taxes), but his political roots in the "New Democrats" movement, many of whose members feel that the president is drifting too far to the left.
Room for compromise exists and is being exploited. The energy lobby aside, economists dispute the value of an energy tax. It would be tragic for Clinton's presidency if ineffective action this year left Americans in the year 2000 with entitlement payments taking up half the federal budget while interest on the federal debt took up another quarter.