Budget Battle Has Revived White House `War Room'

THE command-and-control center of the White House effort to promote its budget plan through what should be one last hair-raising week appears to have captured a bit of the old intensity.

The model for the "war room" in the budget drive is the crowded, energy-oozing room that controlled the campaign message during Bill Clinton's election drive. Then, the overriding message scrawled on a marker board was the phrase "the economy, stupid."

The battle now is to deliver on Mr. Clinton's economic plan, the bulk of which is outlined in the reconciliation bill the White House hopes will clear Congress by the end of the week.

The mission in the war room, named the Reconciliation Room, is to build public support and counter public attacks on the plan - "thereby," says Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman, who runs the operation, "making it easier [for Members of Congress] to vote for."

In a big office in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House, about 25 aides on loan from the administration buzz in shirt sleeves around a ring of the kind of long folding tables people rent for pancake breakfasts. The room is a low-humming jumble of telephones, computers, laser printers, and a bank of televisions tuned to each major network.

The rapid-response team, run by tough-talking former campaign fund-raiser Rahm Emanuel, launched a drive on Friday morning to counter Ross Perot's television advice that Congress drop the Clinton budget and start over.

Meanwhile, Mr. Emanuel and his team are rounding up friendly corporate chief executive officers who are big employers in the states of wavering senators, encouraging them to give their senator a call.

Marla Romash, an aide to Vice President Al Gore Jr., dispatches between 20 and 30 senior officials every day to pitch the economic plan to the public.

Radio audiences still ask if there are any spending cuts in the plan - the administration figures that it is 50 percent cuts - and if most of its taxes fall on the middle class. (As much as 80 percent will fall on families earning more than $200,000.)

"It's tough to combat Rush Limbaugh," Mr. Altman says of the conservative broadcast talkmeister. "Those type of arguments play on people's natural skepticism."

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