The Black Caucus

UNLESS President Clinton and House and Senate leaders get the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, they will not pass their budget. With Republicans lined up against both House and Senate versions of the budget, the almost entirely Democratic black caucus represents the votes needed to pass it.

Due to redistricting, blacks jumped from 25 to 39 members of Congress in 1992. Led by House member Kweisi Mfume (D) of Maryland, the caucus does not want to compromise on what it feels is a minimum set of programs to help cities and the poor: earned income tax credits, "empowerment zones" to boost employment in urban areas, and an expanded food stamps program. In the House budget, the programs cost $42 billion. In the Senate version, only earned income tax credits are funded - at $10 billion.

Resolving this issue is a test of whether Mr. Clinton and Democratic leaders can address both mainstream and minority concerns. Clinton wants to reduce the deficit, a demand for whoever occupies the White House. At the same time, the black caucus correctly argues that for 12 years, cities, the poor, and children have not been high priorities - by state or federal government. They do not want to be made invisible yet again.

Clinton needs to win back African-Americans. They understand as governor of Arkansas he was on their side. Yet he ran for president on a strategy of making him a "mainstream" candidate, at the expense of black leaders like Jesse Jackson. That might have been forgivable, or at least understandable, by blacks - because Clinton privately promised he was their man. But the withdrawal of the nomination of Lani Guinier as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division and a perceived lack of blacks in Clinton's inner circle have caused suspicion that Democrats care about blacks only insofar as they vote the right way.

Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, and Tom Foley must change that perception. Is arguing that cities and the poor will improve if the overall economy improves really so different from the "trickle down" assumptions Clinton ran against? Forcing the black caucus to hold out could create unwanted racial backlash in the country. Mr. Mfume wisely said this week a compromise is possible. The Democrats must find it.

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