Breakfast With George Mitchell: US Ready for Sacrifice?

AT a recent Monitor breakfast, a reporter confronted Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell with a poll showing that the president's economic program wasn't taking hold with the American public. Then he asked Mr. Mitchell: "Is the package salable? Or will it be a big liability in next year's elections?"

The senator cautioned against the unreliability of polls and added: "But the more important question is whether it is the right thing to do. We are on the right course - and it will be salable."

Later in the breakfast the questioner pursued his question: "Is it possible," he asked of Mitchell, "that the president and the Democrats in Congress have misread the American people? Is it possible they really aren't ready for sacrifice?"

"That is a very pertinent and relevant question," said Mitchell. Here he paused and then spoke thoughtfully, obviously dealing with a subject that concerned him deeply.

"In a democratic society," he began, "particularly one that is as large and diverse as ours, can any great national enterprise other than war serve to unify the people in a way that will permit sacrifice?

"We tend to look back with rose-colored glasses and think of Americans in the Second World War gratefully accepting the burdens. In fact, there was tremendous criticism, mostly directed at Congress because the president was very popular at the time."

He paused, then continued:

"But the reality today is that we have a very large and important national problem and it requires a united, national effort. And it's a question whether or not people can be summoned in that circumstance. I think they can. I think people will respond when they fully understand the implications and the substance and the direction of the policies." Then he looked up at the questioner and said: "But I don't dispute the validity of the question or the real difficulty in answering it."

Indeed, how much Americans are willing to sacrifice is uppermost in the minds of the congressional conferees who are beginning their struggle to reshape the economic package that passed each house in markedly different forms, in a way that will be acceptable to both House and Senate.

Liberals in the House, particularly those in the Black Caucus, threaten to oppose any bill that doesn't contain "investment" elements that were contained in the president's original plan. President Clinton himself is saying he will insist that these spending programs for the poor and jobless be reinserted.

But will the citizens of the United States be willing to pay the taxes called for by such programs without complaining, particularly since the polls indicate that half of the public already is upset over the slendered-down investments in the bill the Senate passed?

The so-called conventional wisdom in Washington is saying, with surprising certainty, that a bill acceptable to both Houses will be passed and that the president will soon be signing it into law. One newspaper calls it a "done deal."

The rationale: The Democrats have the votes, and they simply will have to stick with their Democratic president on his basic legislative plan for the people. The cry in Congress will be, "Win this one for the president." And he will prevail.

Perhaps. But it doesn't look like a "done deal" from where I sit.

It will take a lot of pressure and persuasion to shape a bill that satisfies both the Democratic liberals in the House and the Democratic centrists in the Senate. Specifically, what kind of an energy tax provision can be written that will satisfy both groups?

Beyond that, there are those polls showing a public far from happy with the sacrifices that they are going to be asked to make by this legislation. I've talked to a number of people recently, many of whom voted for Mr. Clinton, who feel he is asking too much from them. Most of them were middle-income people who thought Clinton was to provide tax relief, not more taxes.

The economic program won by six votes in the House and by a tiebreaker in the Senate. That's razor close.

Will Democratic members of Congress come through for the president, knowing that the voters might well punish them for legislating sacrifices they aren't happy about accepting?

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