ON the day of his State of the Union address last week, President Clinton took about 45 minutes out from practicing and refining the speech to see Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York and assure him that welfare reform held a prominent position on this year's agenda.
On the two biggest-ticket items in Mr. Clinton's plans this spring - the overhaul of the health care and welfare systems - Mr. Moynihan is in a gatekeeper position as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Both overhauls are likely to be expensive, and any revenue that needs raising will have to go through Moynihan's committee.
One question often puzzled over in political circles when talk turns to Senator Moynihan:
Is the unpredictable, professorial politician a dangerous Clinton ally capable of casually undermining the White House agenda?
Or is he an exasperating Dutch uncle ready to save the President's program from its own excesses? Either way, talk is turning to Senator Moynihan more often these days.
Unlike the administration, he puts a higher priority on revamping welfare than the health-care system.
A year ago, when he took over the Senate Finance Committee gavel from former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, many Democrats were concerned that the old-worldly Moynihan was too intellectual, too abstract, to work his will in the hurly-burly of the tax-writing committee.
That concern is not heard anymore. He played the central role in the tough Senate battle to pass the Clinton budget last year, and he showed a ready ability to wield power. At one point he forced committee members into line on the gasoline tax by threatening to bounce the issue out of the committee and straight onto the Senate floor - cutting them (and himself) out of any special influence on the outcome.
On health care and welfare, Moynihan has already shown himself to be a highly independent voice. In an early January television interview, he directly undercut the White House argument for urgent health-care reform: ``We don't have a health-care crisis. We have a welfare crisis, and we can do both.''
The no-crisis view has become a major Republican argument against the Clinton proposal. The president attacked it directly in his State of the Union speech, suggesting that those who discounted the crisis were out of touch with the problems of struggling families.
Moynihan amended his statement somewhat. The health insurance system may be seriously flawed, he averred, but the United States still had the best health care in history. But he holds that it is the welfare system, not health insurance, that is fundamentally in crisis.
Last fall as the administration was preparing to release its health-care plan, he warned that any claims that would not only pay for itself but produce deficit-reducing savings were ``fantasy.'' The remark set the scene a little uncomfortably for the White House when it claimed exactly that.
A few weeks later, Moynihan prodded Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala in a hearing into estimating that 40 percent of Americans would pay more for health insurance under the Clinton plan - sending the administration scurrying to recalculate the percentage downward.
Later he suggested to a newspaper that Clinton's promises of radical welfare reform may have been ``boob bait for the bubbas'' -
combining a regional slur with a charge of presidential hypocrisy.
If that was not enough, Moynihan was among the first and most prominent Democrats last month to suggest publicly that Clinton ought to appoint a special counsel to investigate Whitewater - at a point where Clinton was steadfastly resisting such advice and trying to focus attention on his European tour.
These days, Clinton and Moynihan are in sync on the big issues. Moynihan is comfortable that he will have a welfare bill from Clinton this spring to move through the Senate. He is likewise committed to moving Clinton's top priority, a health care bill, through the Senate by June, according to his comments on television.
Less clear is what stamp Moynihan will want to put on these bills. A longtime former staff member explains that the senator typically works over an issue and talks it over with his extensive network of acquaintances around the country who are leading lights in their fields, then comes up with a ``unifying principle.'' He then builds the principle into the legislation.
In the 1988 Family Support Act, the welfare reform that Moynihan largely drafted, the principle was that welfare should support people moving toward work, not dependency. In the 1990 highway bill, his principle was that roads and bridges should be funded using market principles. His line posited ``no such thing as a freeway.''
Moynihan is that rare politician who is also a bona fide intellectual. Among his books and articles are some groundbreaking intellectual works. In 1965, he wrote a sympathetic report warning that the breakup of the black family was undermining black progress. He was vilified by liberals and civil rights leaders for more than a decade for blaming the victim. His views are now conventional wisdom from left to right.
For a while, he kept the company of neoconservatives, former liberals many of whom are now Republicans. But in recent years he has emerged as more of a self-critical liberal conscious of the costs and unintended consequences of government action.