WASHINGTON -- Faced with no good choices, most House members took the only way out: They voted down the bipartisan budget agreement on the theory that a better deal could be struck before they all went home to face the voters next month.
That, in a nutshell, was how members of Congress and their campaign consultants explained the stunning setback dealt President Bush and House Democratic leaders in the rejection of the deficit-reduction package early yesterday.
But behind that somewhat oversimplified explanation lies a complex tangle of crosscutting political pressures and grass-roots emotions that makes 1990 one of the strangest election years on record.
"I can't remember an election with so many variables undetermined going into the final stretch, and I think you see that feeling reflected on the Hill," said Alan Secrest, a Democratic pollster, who spent the past two days huddling with nervous congressmen in their House offices.
"I spoke with a number of members who changed their minds two or three times in the process," he said, likening the behavior of House members during the hours before the final vote to a school of fish darting one way and then abruptly reversing field.
Most congressmen felt whipsawed. Many resented being backed into a corner by a deal cooked up between the president and House leaders. But despite the weak leadership discipline over rank-and-file House members in Congress, there was still powerful institutional pressure to support the president, the leadership and the results of the months-long "summit" negotiations on the deficit.
Opinion polls and angry phone calls from constituents, however, were clear evidence that the budget deal, or at least key elements such as higher gasoline taxes and increases in Medicare fees, was a dead loser with the voters.
"When you see the kind of pressure and lobbying tactics that the administration brought to bear over the past week, and you still lose by a 70-vote margin, you've got some real problems with the package," said Representative Steve Gunderson, a conservative Republican from Wisconsin.
Complicating the choice was the approaching midterm election, when all 435 House seats will be at stake. For months, congressmen have watched with increasing concern as voter discontent and anti-Washington sentiment were building throughout the country.
To some House members, the decision was whether it would be worse to vote for an unpopular deal and risk a revolt at the ballot box over the shape of the package, or to reject the agreement and risk generating even greater public disgust over Washington's inability to govern the nation.
"The [budget] crisis is an anti-incumbent crisis," said a Democratic Party campaign strategist, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "In many ways, a challenger can attack an incumbent no matter what he does."
Analysts said that voting against the first deal, but approving another one later, may get members as close as possible to that ultimate political goal: the best of both worlds. They can argue that they weeded out some of the worst elements of the original agreement while still being responsible enough to approve a compromise to reduce the deficit.
Central to the actions of members from both parties was the belief that "they would work out something" before Election Day, said campaign consultant Ed Goaes, a former official of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But other strategists pointed to the uncertain chance of reaching a meaningful agreement before Congress adjourns later this month for the final weeks of the re-election campaign. One cautioned against "trying to predict the final score in the third quarter." Another called it "a crap shoot. You don't know how it works out."
The political equation was clearly uppermost in the decision of some election-minded congressmen. All 11 House members running for U.S. senator or governor this fall voted "no," as did virtually every member facing a tight re-election race.
However, many in both parties who voted "no" were incumbents facing little or no threat of being unseated next month.
To them, the budget package simply failed to reflect their principles or those of their constituents -- Democrats wanted the rich to pay more, and Republicans objected to Mr. Bush's breaking his no-new-taxes pledge, particularly in the midst of an economic downturn.
"The Republicans are going to vote against anything that has the T-word in it. . . . The Democrats are not going to stick it in the ears of the middle-income earners while the wealthy take the Concorde on their profits," said Representative David R. Obey, D-Wis., a liberal who helped lead the opposition to the agreement.
Political consultants in both parties reported receiving an almost unprecedented level of inquiries from their House clients, checking on public sentiment and the politics of the budget vote.
"I basically told them that if they voted for it, it would be a vote that would require a very strenuous defense," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster, who, like the others interviewed, advised members to vote "no."
"I can't recall an issue in a long time where there's been such a conflict," he said, calling it the most difficult vote for Congress since the 1983 compromise to reform Social Security.