Clinton Agenda Sails Through Congress, As Democrats Unite
After being approved by House last week, economic plan expected to win Senate vote
WASHINGTON — THE president's economic program will face more trouble in the Senate this week than it had in passing the House of Representatives last week.
But not much more trouble, according to lobbyists who work the Senate.
They expect the members to trim some of the spending further, especially from the economic stimulus package, and to attack some of the tax increases. But in the end, they say, the Senate version of President Clinton's program is likely to closely resemble the House version.
"The thing that's surprising to me is the discipline the Democrats are showing," says Tom Korologos, a lobbyist with strong Republican roots.
The driving arguments in both chambers have had less to do with the merits of the programs than with the need to give the new president a chance to implement his initiatives.
"Most Democrats in both houses believe that their fates are tied to the president's," says Martin Corry, director of federal relations for the American Association of Retired Persons.
Since voters have chosen a unified government under Democratic control for the first time in 12 years, he says, Democrats "are literally staring the future of their party in the face right now."
The battle under way now to put Mr. Clinton's economic program into action will not be over until late summer. Each stage will become more difficult. But with every skirmish he wins along the way, he is establishing himself as a winner.
"It's central to the success of his presidency," says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.
The president's economic plan is before the Senate this week in two bills. One is a $16 billion bundle of initiatives intended to act as a short-term, job-creating stimulus to the economy. This is an appropriations bill that can take effect as soon as it can pass.
The other is the budget resolution that outlines the shape of the federal budget for the fiscal year that begins next October. The resolution contains the spending and tax shifts of the Clinton economic package.
Both bills passed the House late March 18. The budget resolution outlined about $60 billion more in budget cuts, spread over five years, than Clinton had asked for.
The package will be more vulnerable to change in the Senate because of the chamber's rules. In the House, leaders could control the agenda and keep votes to choices between alternative packages. In the Senate, members can offer rifle-shot amendments to change specific items alone.
This makes the outcome in the Senate more difficult to predict. Challenges are likely to Clinton's proposals to raise taxes on Social Security benefits, to cut defense spending deeply, and to leave entitlement spending relatively untouched.
The strongest challenge, though, may have been one that Democrats have already defeated. On March 18, Senate Republicans and three Southern Democrats voted to strip the energy tax out of the budget resolution. They lost.
Mr. Korologos says that the 46 votes lodged against that key element in Clinton's program may have been the peak effort the opposition can muster.
The Democrats "are putting the screws to people. They're playing hardball," he says.
The stimulus package will have a harder time than the budget bill in the Senate, because the budget bill is treated with unique rules that allow no filibusters or other obstacles that usually require 60 votes to overcome. Democrats have 57 Senate seats.
For most Americans, the significance of these bills is not the success of the Clinton presidency or the future of the Democrats as a governing party. Rather it is the impact on the economy.
The stimulus spending consists of extending unemployment benefits, some social programs that include summer-job creation, and a temporary investment tax credit.
Economists expect it to raise the level of employment in the country slightly in late 1993 and early 1994. According to calculations by L.H. Meyer & Associates in St. Louis, a leading economic-forecasting firm, unemployment will run about 0.3 to 0.4 percent lower early next year under the Clinton program than it would without it.
As 1994 progresses, however, Clinton's tax increases will slow the economy. His stimulus spending will offset that drag early on, and after a year or two the benefits of lower deficits will outweigh the tax drag, according to an L.H. Meyer study released early this month.