A Texas-Sized Signal

TEXAS voters have sent two messages to President Clinton: that they wouldn't give a six-week-old pot of chili for his budget plan and its energy-tax proposal; and, less directly, that he needs to build stronger bridges to centrist Democrats and Republicans in Congress if he hopes to advance his agenda.

As expected, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison easily beat interim Sen. Bob Krueger (D) in Saturday's runoff election to fill the United States Senate seat left vacant when the president picked Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to be Treasury secretary. The margin was 68 percent for Senator-elect Hutchison and 32 percent for Senator Krueger.

For Texas, which narrowly backed President Bush last November, the election marks the first time since 1875 that the state has sent two GOP senators to Washington.

For Congress, the election not only adds another female senator, but a second female Republican senator.

And for Mr. Clinton? Potential political trouble now and in 1994. During the campaign, both Krueger and Hutchison said they opposed the Clinton energy tax.

But Hutchison, widely acknowledged as the better campaigner, focused on the overall thrust of the budget package, calling it too heavy in tax increases and too light in spending cuts. Meanwhile, throughout the campaign top Democrats in the state seemed to focus less on defending the president's budget and more on what they called the importance of having at least one Democratic senator, who presumably would have the president's ear, in Washington.

For Clinton, the party lineup in the Senate has shifted from 57 Democrats, 43 Republicans to 56 Democrats, 44 Republicans. This makes the threat of a Republican filibuster, which would require 60 votes to shut off, more potent unless the president does a better job of courting moderates in both parties.

Already, GOP strategists are looking to the midterm elections, when the party out of the White House traditionally gains seats in Congress. In 1994, 22 Democratic senators are up for reelection, versus 12 Republicans. At the moment, several Democratic seats are seen as vulnerable, including those in West Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona, Michigan, and New Jersey. Some analysts see the GOP picking up three seats in '94, a respectable gain.

Much depends on the challengers in these races. But much also will hang on how quickly the learning president learns how to succeed in Washington.

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