Clinton Gets Message: GOP Cannot Be Ignored
WASHINGTON — IT was a rough week for the Clinton White House, perhaps its toughest yet.
First came the fiery debacle in Waco, Texas. Now the defeat of its $16.3 billion jobs program in the Senate.
Loss of the jobs bill could be far more serious for President Clinton. Despite Democratic majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, despite promises to break "gridlock" on Capitol Hill, Democrats failed to attract even the few Republican votes they needed to pass Mr. Clinton's proposals.
Republican senators, marching in unison, found their voice and sent a shiver through the White House. Although Republicans are a minority of just 43 senators in a 100-member body, when they stand shoulder-to-shoulder, they can use the filibuster to block even Clinton's most critical programs.
Analysts say the president and his White House team badly bungled the economic-stimulus program, which included money for urban projects, immunization, and summer jobs. They suggest Clinton should learn several important lessons, or the next four years could be bumpy.
Perhaps most important, he cannot ignore the GOP. Democrats steamrollered Republicans in the House, passing Clinton's plan while ignoring every Republican amendment. But those tactics didn't work in the Senate, with its more open rules, which allow an unlimited voice for the minority.
In the future, particularly in the forthcoming health-care initiative, Clinton must include Republicans in his deliberations or he could see the whole program go down in flames. The prognosis isn't good: Republican experts on health care complain bitterly that they are being shut out of the planning process.
Clinton must also do a far more effective job of rallying public support. Lee Miringoff, a pollster at the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Poughkeepsie, N.Y., notes that in New York State, people supported the Clinton jobs program by more than a 2-to-1 margin in a survey taken April 14.
Yet when Republicans, including Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York, threatened to sink the Clinton program, there was no outpouring of support for Clinton. There was no cascade of telegrams and letters raining on recalcitrant Republicans.
Dr. Miringoff says: "The support for Clinton's program was potentially there, but it had to be activated. Congress has to start getting bags of mail. But Congress did not get that kind of pressure.... Clinton needed to build support and sustain it, and he was not doing that."
Finally, Clinton must not allow Republicans to frame the debate, as they did so successfully on the jobs program.
At the very outset of the filibuster in the Senate, minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas labeled the Clinton program a "pork" bill, filled with special-interest projects favored by the president's political supporters.
The label stuck. But as troubles grew in the Senate, the White House was distracted by the economic and political crisis in Russia, the war in the Balkans, and even the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest. At times, each got more focused attention than the jobs program.
Analysts say Clinton needs to bring more of his political skills, which were so evident during the presidential campaign, into play in his relations with Congress.
During the campaign, Clinton had a "rapid response" team that immediately counterattacked his opponents. Yet when Republicans called his bill "pork," the White House failed to respond effectively.
By this week, even some Democrats were wavering in their support of the Clinton plan. When Republicans offered a watered-down version of the president's jobs bill, they picked up support from four Democratic senators, including J. James Exon of Nebraska, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Sam Nunn of Georgia, and Richard Shelby of Alabama.
When Clinton eventually offered a compromise version of his bill, he lost five Democrats, including Senators Exon, Kerrey, and Shelby, as well as the two Wisconsin senators, Herbert Kohl and Russ Feingold.
Several Democratic senators worried that Clinton's proposals were financed entirely with borrowed money. They wanted either higher taxes to pay for them, or spending cuts elsewhere.
In the end, Clinton salvaged only $4 billion in unemployment benefits. That passed on a voice vote - with Republican help.