Freshmen Democrats Key to Budget Vote

One new lawmaker feels the heat as the House prepares to vote soon on tax hikes and spending cuts. CONGRESS

WHAT a day. What a week.

Hours before "the most important vote of the year," Rep. Jay Inslee (D) of Washington finds himself at the center of a political whirlwind blowing around the White House and Capitol Hill.

Representative Inslee and other freshmen Democrats hold the future of President Clinton's $1.5 trillion budget in their grasp. How will they vote? Many aren't saying.

"It depends," says Inslee enigmatically. "We've been having some real hard discussions...."

As the House of Representatives moves toward zero hour on the Clinton budget, possibly today, members like Inslee are tugged and pulled by the White House, by Democratic leaders, and by the voters back home.

Amid all the pressure, Inslee tries to remember why the voters sent him here: "I think they chose someone who had it in his heart that the No. 1 problem of the country was the federal deficit, and that we were all going to have to give something to solve that problem," he says.

Inslee praises Clinton for putting the deficit issue at the top of the government's agenda. The Clinton plan will cut the deficit in half in four or five years. But the congressman wonders: Is that good enough?

"It's just my belief that we can do better at this moment, and we ought not to let that moment pass," he says.

While House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri vows the Clinton budget will pass, all sides admit that unpredictable backbenchers like Inslee really hold the key.

Their unpredictability has given Inslee and his freshmen colleagues unusual prominence.

On Tuesday, for example, Inslee began the day at 7 a.m. with an interview on National Public Radio. An hour later, he met with 18 fellow freshmen Democrats on Capitol Hill to draft a letter to the president. They called for "substantial additional expenditure reductions before we agree to a tax increase...."

By 10 a.m., Inslee was at the White House with other freshmen Democrats to be courted by Clinton, by majority leader Gephardt, and by House Speaker Thomas Foley.

At 1 p.m., after a quick bowl of chili, Inslee was ready for a meeting with his staff, a phone call from the White House, and an impromptu interview with a newspaper reporter. At 2 p.m. he raced from his office to the Capitol to vote, then had another newspaper interview.

By late afternoon, after more votes on the House floor, he was back at a strategy conference with antitax Democrats. Finally, there was another meeting with top White House people, including Leon Panetta, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"It's the best of times, and it's the worst of times," says Inslee, paraphrasing Dickens. "It's the best time to be here because we can actually effect change. It's also the toughest time."

Like many congressmen, Inslee, as a good Democrat, wants to support Clinton. But he is getting a strong message from home: Cut spending before you raise taxes. Clinton would do both simultaneously.

Inslee says: "People have consistently told me, `We will accept taxes, if we have to, if, one, you have first scrubbed the federal budget as much as you can and made as many cuts as you believe you can without damaging essential government services. And, two, if it truly reduces the deficit.' " He concludes: "I think we can try a little more scrubbing. That's what it boils down to."

Such candor isn't always popular, even at home. Ross Anderson, writing in the Seattle Times, notes that in March Inslee ruffled some voters in a town meeting when he said:

"The federal deficit is so big, more than $300 billion, that we could fire every federal employee ... and we'd still have a federal deficit in the billions." Where's the extra money going? Entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

Now Clinton is hearing the same message. For example, Inslee suggests there's no reason to subsidize Medicare for the rich.

Sometimes this tough talk draws criticism. But Inslee pushes on. "Whenever I get in trouble, I just call my mother," he says. "She says, `Things are fine. You're doing a great job.' "

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