FROM left to right - from Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts to Rep. John Kasich (R) of Ohio - a broad consensus has taken hold in Congress: President Clinton's stimulus and deficit-cutting package needs deeper spending cuts.
But Mr. Clinton's proposals still command surprisingly high support from the public and in Congress, despite an increase in taxes.
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken over the weekend, about 3 out of 5 Americans approved of Clinton's economic proposals and judged that they would help the economy. But 3 of 4 said that Clinton did not go far enough to reduce federal spending, indicating the weak point of the package.
Clinton himself now appears to welcome further cuts. "I think you'll see a continuous stream of them coming out as we go along," he said March 2, adding that additional cuts could come "from me and from others."
He took another step in that direction yesterday in announcing a task force for streamlining the federal government to save money and offer services more efficiently. It is modeled after a Texas state review that cut about 10 percent from the administrative costs of government.
That is a relatively painless step. But the Congress that agrees on cutting spending more deeply is still deeply divided over what spending to cut. One lobbyist believes that members of Congress are using spending concerns as a hedge against a public backlash against the tax increases in the package. "They're worried that people are going to wake up and say, `You did what?' " to my taxes, says the lobbyist, who spoke anonymously to protect his employer's interests.
Many Republicans expect popular support to erode as people figure just how much more they will pay in taxes. "In the end, time is not on this package's side," says Tom Korologos, a lobbyist and former Reagan aide.
"Clinton will lose people through attrition as they realize what the impact is on them," says Vin Weber, former GOP representative from Minnesota.
The first major vote should come later this month on the budget resolution, which sets overall budget limits and sends instructions to committees. Many expect this to be a party-line vote - vast majorities of Democrats sticking with Clinton and Republicans opposing.
But then the work breaks up into committees and the deal-making begins. The coalitions behind the package probably will become much more bipartisan then, as they have in past budget negotiations. Republicans as well as Democrats will realize this will be the biggest vehicle they have this year to carry their favored projects, says the lobbyist.
The deepest spending cuts may also come in the later stages of the budget process, if the recent past is any guide, says Mr. Frank, who is on the Budget Committee. The budget resolution tends to set an upper limit on spending and the reconciliation process that follows tends to spend less than the limits in the resolution, he adds.
HE may try to make some further cuts in the budget resolution, but we will certainly be making further cuts beyond that," he says, estimating that appropriations panels may find $5 billion to $6 billion in additional cuts.
The White House and congressional leadership are currently choreographing how the budget dance will unfold. Last week, they assuaged the concerns of House freshmen who wanted to vote for deficit reduction before they voted for stimulus spending. The vote on the stimulus spending was moved back to April.
The White House needs to hold most of its own party's votes in line to pass the budget resolution. In the House, it will probably need no Republican votes. The swing votes that Clinton and his supporters need to hold here are conservative Southern Democrats, once known as boll weevils.
The leading boll weevil, Rep. Charles Stenholm (D) of Texas, wants to see a richer mix of spending cuts to taxes in the package, but "he will support the president and his package," says his press secretary John Haugen.
In the Senate, Clinton needs to hold virtually all 57 Democrats and to pick up some Republicans, since forcing a vote can require 60 votes. Picking up moderate to liberal Republicans here should be easier than in the more partisan House.
Majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine is seeking to tie health-care reform into one vote with budget reconciliation to move the controversial health legislation through more easily.
Senate Republicans were relieved to hear when meeting with Clinton March 2 that he had not made a decision on Mr. Mitchell's plan yet. The reconciliation rules weaken the clout of the minority party in the Senate.