PRESIDENT Clinton may have saved his economic package in the House, but trouble is brewing in the Senate.
Republicans and conservative Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee have teamed up to draft an alternative plan promising greater spending cuts and reduced tax hikes. Mr. Clinton will have to work out a compromise with committee members to salvage his plan.
At a news conference yesterday, Sens. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma and John Danforth (R) of Missouri proposed caps on entitlements and elimination of Clinton's proposed energy tax, two key elements of the Clinton plan that conservative Democrats object to. The Boren-Danforth plan proposes $150 billion in new taxes compared with more than $240 billion in the Clinton plan; Boren-Danforth propose $337 billion in spending cuts while Clinton proposes $174 billion.
Mr. Boren's counterproposal means that Clinton's plan cannot pass the Senate Finance Committee, where Democrats hold only an 11-to-9 margin.
Clinton's session Wednesday with House Democrats seemed to bolster party support for his plan to hike taxes and cut spending. He said he'd go "out on a limb" with supporters, say those at the meeting.
The leaders of the conservative House Democratic revolt, Reps. Charles Stenholm of Texas and David McCurdy of Oklahoma, insist they have enough votes to kill Clinton's plan. But some members of their faction indicate that the president's plan will likely pass the House when it reaches the floor May 27.
"When you get right down to it, we're probably not going to let [it] die," says Rep. Charles Wilson, a conservative Democrat from Texas.
The House's 176 Republicans, who will vote en bloc against the plan, would need 42 Democrats to vote with them to defeat it. House Democratic leaders expressed confidence after Wednesday's caucus session that enough party members would go along with the president.
"I think the president's program will be enacted largely intact," said Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine.
But no sooner had Mr. Mitchell uttered those confident words, when party unity sprung another leak - within Mitchell's own Senate ranks. Energy tax in danger
The Boren-Danforth plan puts Clinton's energy tax in greater peril. Though House Speaker Tom Foley (D) of Washington said Wednesday, "We have no plans at this point to change the basic program before it's voted on next week," Mitchell called it "possible" the energy tax would be changed in the Senate.
If Clinton is prepared to deal on the energy tax, he is encouraged to do so sooner not later. House tax opponents, especially those from rural energy-producing states, have told him that they are afraid that if they approve the tax and he later cuts a deal to drop it in the Senate, they will be vulnerable with voters.
Clinton's dilemma is partly his own doing. Earlier this year, House Democrats from Western states supported an unpopular measure to hike fees for grazing and mining on federal land, only to watch the president give up the plan when Western senators objected.
In his meeting with House Democrats Wednesday, Clinton assured members that he would not leave them vulnerable at the polls - that a vote for higher taxes really would produce a smaller deficit. After the 1990 budget deal between President Bush and Congress, the last big tax hike, some members felt burned when the deficit did not decline as projected because of the recession.
Clinton appears less willing to give in on demands from conservative Democrats that he cap entitlements that Americans automatically receive if they qualify. The president agrees that the spiraling costs of the programs need to be controlled, but that caps would leave too many Americans vulnerable. Wait for health-care reform, he urged Democrats. Entitlements at issue
Conservative Democrats are asking the House leadership to allow an amendment vote to cap entitlements, but it is inclined not to make the concession.
Mr. Wilson says Clinton is "walking a narrow line" between the need to accommodate conservatives and keep liberal members on board. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) of Maryland, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Wednesday that the caucus would be "inclined" not to support the legislation if it contained entitlement caps.
Four months into his presidency, Clinton seems to have learned some lessons about dealing with Congress. When his economic-stimulus plan appeared in danger, he did not make a high-profile public effort to save it. The plan died in the face of a Republican filibuster.
This time, Clinton took his case directly to the public, with a swing to the West Coast this week to talk up his plan. He and Vice President Al Gore Jr. have conducted meetings with business leaders who support the program.
Clinton supporters are trying to play down the drama of the week's events, pointing out that this effort at deficit reduction lacks the sense of crisis surrounding the 1990 budget plan.