IF President Clinton manages to get Congress to approve his deficit-reduction plan this week, he will have achieved the rarest of legislative feats: passing a budget with only the votes of his own party.
The plan - which aims to cut the deficit by $496 billion over the next five years through spending cuts and tax increases - faces a vote today in the House of Representatives and tomorrow in the Senate. At the time of this writing, Mr. Clinton still could not say he had the votes.
How is it that the president of the United States appears to be operating at such a disadvantage on the most crucial vote of his presidency to date - particularly when his party controls both houses of Congress?
Time was when a Democratic president could get his way through threats and sheer force of persuasion. President Johnson was able to command loyalty by threatening to kill a member's favorite project or tax break. But legislators, particularly senators, operate much more as independent contractors these days, and pleas for party unity don't carry as much weight - particularly in an era when the public increasingly identifies itself as "independent."
In addition, Clinton won the presidency with only 43 percent of the vote, and so brought little natural mandate to the job. He's had to earn it.
Clinton's team now realizes that the go-it-alone strategy of relying just on Democrats was a mistake.
When asked about the lessons the administration has learned in this process, presidential adviser George Stephano-poulos replied: "No. 1, in developing the plan, I think that we're determined, when we can, [to] try to reach out to Republicans on a bipartisan basis. That's not to say that we're going to accept inaction or accept all they call for, but we'll make the effort."
"I think we may have erred in thinking that coming forth with a bold deficit-reduction plan, which involved at least as much spending cuts as tax increases, would by its nature attract some Republican support, given the attitudes of so many Republicans toward deficit-reduction," says Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman.
In fact, the Senate is split ideologically about 50-50 on fiscal matters, members say, and so the Democrats' 56-44 advantage created a sense of false security. Moderate GOP senators say if they had been consulted early, they might have been able to help fashion a package that would win some Republicans and not alienate too many liberal Democrats.
Sen. James Jeffords (R) of Vermont, the only Republican to vote against his party's last-minute alternative, says the administration was naive. "It's understandable," he says. "They started this whole procedure at the beginning of his term, and I don't think he understood that, although there are majorities in both houses of Democrats, that both houses break down philosophically almost even. Thus, if you think that everybody's going to vote in lock step, that's incorrect.
"They said: `We have the numbers, so you guys can't stop us,' " Mr. Jeffords adds. "They stonewalled us." He says there was no coordinated group decision among Republicans to vote "no." "It was obvious that if you don't ask us to participate, then don't count on us to vote for it."
Thus, the president finds himself in his "Perils of Pauline" jam. On the eve of the vote, he and his surrogates have pleaded, cajoled, and wooed in an effort to clinch those final Democratic votes.
Yesterday, Clinton went to Capitol Hill to talk to lawmakers. The night before, he addressed the nation by TV, seeking to turn around a public which, polls say, believes the average American's income taxes are going up. In fact, he said, income taxes will rise only for the wealthiest Americans. It is the increased gasoline tax - 4.3 cents a gallon - that will hit everybody, and then less than a dime a day, he argued.
"I need your help," Clinton said. "I need for you to tell the people's representatives to get on with the people's business. Tell them to change the direction of the economy and do it now, so that we can start growing again, producing jobs again, and moving our economy forward again."
The White House is making sure that the Democrats it believes are on board stay on board. But the most crucial audience for all this do-or-die rhetoric is just a few Democratic senators, one of whom the White House is hoping will change his "no" vote. In June, the Senate passed the deficit-reduction package 50-49, with Vice President Al Gore Jr. casting the tiebreaker. Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma has switched his vote to "no."
Of the six Democratic senators who voted "no," the administration believes that Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona is most wooable. Clinton praised him Tuesday for proposing a "deficit-reduction trust fund." Clinton issued executive orders yesterday establishing the trust fund and a future requirement to cap spending if the current plan fails.