MEMBERS of the Congressional Black Caucus lined up on a small sound stage near the House of Representatives chamber last week to announce their opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D) of Michigan blasted a treaty that is generally supported by President Clinton as "a union-busting, environmentally detrimental program that cannot be remedied by side agreements."
It was only the latest slap at the Democratic administration from the 40-member bloc, whose support may be vital to passing an economic package and the rest of Mr. Clinton's agenda. Caucus members, normally the most loyal Democrats in Congress, have broken ranks with their party recently, even going so far as to open talks with GOP senators on an alternative budget deal.
Caucus members say their bitterness toward the administration has been fueled by irritations great and small. On a personal level, caucus members are upset that the president has not consulted with them before making decisions - a failing they attribute to the lack of minority faces among Clinton's top White House aides. On policy matters, caucus members have been upset by the president's flip-flop on letting Haitian refugees into this country and, especially, by his handling of the Lani Guinier nominati on to the Justice Department.
"The final straw was Ms. Guinier's withdrawal," says Rep. Donald Payne (D) of New Jersey.
After her nomination was yanked June 3, the caucus voted not to accept an invitation to meet Clinton. There are still no plans for a get-together. "Nothing has happened yet to change the feeling that was there in the caucus," says Rep. Major Owens (D) of New York. "There's a feeling that the caucus was being taken for granted ... and a feeling of betrayal by the White House."
Caucus members say they will not take out their frustrations with Clinton on his economic package. "We've got too much to do to play pay back with the administration," says Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) of Maryland, the caucus chairman. All the same, he and other caucus members say the budget, as it emerged from the Senate, is "unacceptable."
THE caucus's favorite programs have been eliminated by the Senate (e.g. empowerment zones for urban areas) or scaled back dramatically (e.g. the Earned Income Tax Credit, from $28 billion to $18 billion). In the House, caucus members supported $50 billion of cuts in Medicare growth over five years. But they are unwilling to support the extra $17 billion in cuts tacked on by the Senate.
The Democratic leadership says those problems can be adjusted in the conference committee beginning this week. "I don't think the Black Caucus will abstain from supporting the package," says House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington.
But Black Caucus members are skeptical. Reinstating their favorite programs, caucus members note, would mean boosting taxes, which would not fly in the Senate. "It's a very delicate thing to do," says Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, a caucus member who is the No. 3 Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.
In case the conference committee can't pull off this high-wire act, Mr. Rangel has been exploring an alternative economic plan with Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming and other Senate Republicans.
"I want to see if the Republicans can make us an offer we can't refuse," Rangel says. As it stands, the offer is that Republicans would back the caucus's social programs in return for its support for indexing the capital-gains tax. Conservatives say that indexing this tax would stimulate the economy and increase federal revenues.
Both sides stress that negotiations are at a preliminary stage, and may not amount to much. An aide to Mr. Wallop says the Republican is uncomfortable with using the windfall from lower capital-gains taxes to pay for more social programs. For his part, Rangel concedes indexing capital gains "smacks of trickle-down" economics. But he says his negotiations mark a turning point: "It's historic but painful for the Black Caucus to think we can get more social justice from the Republicans than from our own par ty."
No matter what the outcome, the Rangel-Wallop talks put more pressure on the White House to accede to the caucus's demands. Caucus members clearly relish the prospect. They want the administration to know that their support will no longer be as automatic as the sun coming up. "People make a fatal mistake if they think we have no place to go," says an aide to Mr. Mfume.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D) of California adds that Democratic leaders should get used to the caucus charting an independent course. With its growing size and self-confidence, she says, the caucus can act like conservative Democrats who routinely buck party leaders to win concessions: "We have no permanent friends and permanent enemies. We're just like any other voting bloc."