WASHINGTON — SINKING dangerously in the polls, President Clinton has moved swiftly to strengthen his political standing with the voters - and with a worried Congress.
The president's next major test on Capitol Hill comes soon. His $1.5 trillion budget, which narrowly passed the House last week, goes to the Senate, where antitax lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike, have their muskets primed and ready.
Mr. Clinton, sensing possible defeat, has acted publicly and privately to shore up support.
The most dramatic effort came over the Memorial Day weekend. Clinton stunned Washington by selecting a Republican moderate, David Gergen, editor-at-large with U.S. News & World Report, to be his counselor. Mr. Gergen, a former aide to three GOP presidents, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, becomes part of Clinton's inner circle of advisers. (Praise for the move, Page 2.)
Privately, Clinton also tried to soften Senate opposition to his budget by courting Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, the leading foe of his energy, or Btu, tax.
Senator Boren, who sometimes describes himself as a "militant moderate," hailed both developments, including his discussions with the president. He told one interviewer: "What's happened ... cannot be overstated in terms of its importance. This was a watershed week for the president."
Boren now expects a compromise, but it will be politically difficult. The president's $71.5 billion energy tax would be cut. But how would that revenue be replaced, as it must be under an earlier congressional budget agreement? Boren has targeted popular programs for cuts, including Social Security and Medicare.
CLINTON'S actions - reaching out through Ger-gen to both moderate Democrats like Boren and to Republicans - could help the president forge a bipartisan compromise. Just as important, it could shore up Clinton's image with voters as "a new kind of Democrat," as he promised in 1992.
His staff expressed elation: "We've got a presidency on the move now," White House adviser Paul Begala said on TV.
But the shift toward the center could force Clinton to modify his proposals - which could anger Capitol Hill liberals.
At a recent breakfast meeting with reporters, Boren complained that up to now, Clinton has used a one-house, liberal strategy in dealing with Congress. First on his $16.5 billion economic stimulus package, then again on his budget, Clinton initially followed the same path. He dealt with House Democrats, shunned Republicans, and ignored the Senate. Boren says this tactic pulled Clinton sharply to the left.
"No wonder the [Ross] Perot phenemenon keeps growing," says Boren.
The appointment of Gergen, and the willingness to scale back the energy tax, both signal that Clinton is moving back "between the 40-yard lines," where Boren says most Americans reside politically. The Oklahoma senator says the president now should strive for a budget deal that reflects a compromise between the more liberal House and the centrist Senate.
What could such a compromise be? Leon Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget, says the final budget must still do three things:
* Contain $500 billion in budget deficit reductions over five years.
* Be progressive by making wealthy taxpayers carry a bigger load.
* Include a broad-based energy tax.
Boren, who says there are 10 to 12 Democratic senators who oppose Clinton's budget as it was passed by the House, agrees with Mr. Panetta's broad principles. But he adds two more of his own.
First, the Clinton energy tax must be scaled back sharply. It must not injure export industries (and cost jobs) by raising their costs of fuel and feedstocks. Second, Clinton's ratio of spending cuts ($220 billion) to new taxes ($270 billion) must be improved to a 2-to-1 ratio in favor of cuts.
As the public learns the details of Clinton's budget, support has declined, says David Moore, a pollster with Gallup. At present, public opinion is sharply divided, with 44 percent for the Clinton plan, 45 percent against.
But Boren's proposal may be even less popular. He would reduce cost-of-living allowances for Social Security and federal government retirees, and scale back Medicare. The public rejects that, 72 to 22, Mr. Moore reports.
Even so, Boren says if Democrats don't vote for more spending cuts than new taxes, they "will become a minority party."