WASHINGTON — NO one can argue with success.
Pundits can question whether President Clinton won a "clear mandate," as he claimed, in getting his deficit-reduction plan through both houses of Congress last week by the thinnest of margins and with not one Republican vote.
But he did get the bill through, 218 to 216 in the House and 51 to 50 in the Senate, with Vice President Al Gore Jr. breaking the tie. And, in the end, it was a fear of the alternative - starting from scratch to create a new deficit-reduction plan - that led enough conservative Democrats to hold their noses and vote for a plan they felt didn't cut enough spending.
Rep. Tim Penny (D) of Minnesota, a leading fiscal conservative who helped the president bring some of the crucial final votes on board, says defeat would have meant "chaos" and, ultimately, less deficit reduction.
Congress now has a month's recess to ponder legislative blockbusters that await them - namely, health-care reform, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and welfare reform. And in order for Clinton to prevail on those issues, he needs to show that he's learned some lessons from the budget experience, such as the need to take a more bipartisan approach to the crafting of legislation, say members of Congress and other observers.
"I think his political capital is running low and he really needs to find a way to make a few deposits in his account," says Mr. Penny, who announced Friday that he will not run for reelection, partly out of frustration over Congress's inability to act decisively on spending cuts.
One way for Clinton to boost his stock, at least among the key conservative Democratic swing bloc, would be to appoint a bipartisan commission on the budget, says Penny. Membership should include people like former Sens. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, who would propose a list of spending cuts that would spread the pain across all states and legislative districts - much the way the military-base-closingcommission has sought to insulate members of Congress from t he political pain of economically disadvantageous decisions.
Penny already gained a concession out of the administration on deficit-reduction, by securing a promise of administration legislation to cut the deficit further. That will come after Oct. 1, says House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington. Gain in political capital
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says Clinton made a net gain in political capital by winning on the budget. True, Clinton "had to use capital to win capital," says Mr. Ornstein, but he showed that "when you get down to [it], the job gets done." In that respect, the narrowness of the vote worked to his advantage, he says.
In each house, even up to the final moments before the votes, Clinton was working the phones and making promises to various House and Senate members to win their support. A succession of members made their way into the limelight as they held out, each for his or her own reason.
Observers are inclined to excuse the posturing of Sen. Dennis Deconcini (D) of Arizona, who faces a tough reelection battle next year and who may have fallen on his sword politically by switching his vote from a "no" to a "yes." In exchange, he got executive orders from the president, one creating a "deficit reduction trust fund" that designates that savings from spending cuts are applied to deficit reduction (a gimmick, say critics); and a future requirement to cap spending if the current plan fails.
Ditto for freshman Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D) of Pennsylvania, who represents a wealthy, traditionally Republican district and whose reluctant "yes" vote put Clinton over the top in the House. In exchange, she got a promise from Clinton of an economic conference in her district of Cabinet members and other leaders to discuss entitlement spending and deficit reduction.
As for Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, the final holdout, observers ascribe his Hamletesque indecision to a personality that has earned him the nickname "Cosmic Bob." Democratic supporters of the plan seemed a bit annoyed that he left them twisting in the wind.
Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma is another one who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame by changing his vote from "yes" to "no," thereby taking away the president's one-vote margin. But at least he announced his switch several days before the vote, giving Clinton enough time to woo Senator Deconcini. Seeking cover
Some members may have been looking for political cover by complaining loudly as they voted "yes." Others see political advantage in bucking the president.
"In some parts of the country, it's a badge of honor to have a disagreement with a president of your own party," Speaker Foley told a Monitor luncheon Friday. "One might look at Oklahoma today as an example of a place where, probably, principal political leaders are not suffering great retribution and the public somehow likes that, the opposition party likes it, independents like it."
There's no way Clinton can match the armtwisting style of President Johnson, for whom nostalgia has waxed in recent days. Even if Clinton had the same type of personality as Johnson, that kind of style wouldn't wash these days, says Foley.
"There are a lot of entrepreneurs in Congress, individuals who have their own political organizations, who have their own fund-raising activities, who don't depend on a national administration or party, and who can be quite independent," says Foley. Next vote
Given that, Clinton has all the more reason to work to avoid the hair-raising experience of last week. In fact, it won't even be technically possible to eke through on vice-presidential tie-breakers with health care reform and NAFTA, because, unlike on the budget bill, Republicans will be allowed to halt legislation with a filibuster - and the Democrats' 56 to 44 margin does not provide the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster.
Foley is well aware of this.
Speaking of NAFTA and health care, he said: "I don't think either one's going to be an easy issue. I think you're going to have more bipartisanship on both of those issues.... On health care, I think the issue is important enough to Americans that Republicans will not want to be totally out of the picture in participating in the drafting of it."
Congressman Penny says the Republicans have not yet been included adequately in the drafting of health care legislation. "We could be heading for the same disaster," he warns.