Deficit war's key soldiers opening Baltimore talks

January 28, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The essential foot soldiers in President Clinton's campaign to cut the deficit and re-energize the economy are boarding buses to Baltimore this morning, where they will begin two days of basic training for the political battles to come.

As nearly 160 of the 260 House Democrats gather for their retreat on the Johns Hopkins University campus, the central question is whether a willful, headstrong lot accustomed to 12 years of independence from the White House -- if not great accomplishment -- can form solid ranks behind a president of their own party.

Steny H. Hoyer, the Prince George's County Democrat who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, argues that politically the legislators can't afford to fail.

"The American people don't see Washington as three separate institutions -- the House, the Senate and the White House, and they made clear in the last election they don't want to hear excuses about why things don't get done," Mr. Hoyer said. "So, I think we have an understanding as Democrats that it has to be one for all and all for one."

Even so, the talk in Hopkins' classrooms, lecture halls and gymnasiums over the next two days will be about such unappealing options as raising taxes on gasoline, home heating oil and Social Security benefits. The party that has been waiting for more than a decade to revive social spending programs now has to contemplate cutbacks in Medicaid, Medicare and veteran's benefits.

"There's obviously going to be some tension in the relationship," said Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. "Clinton's going to want to keep the lid on a lot of that pressure for social spending. The issue for the House Democrats is whether the liberals are going to be kept in line."

But this is the easy part for Mr. Clinton, compared with working with the Senate, where the rules allow each balky member to be an obstructionist. The Clinton administration is hoping to put its basic economic package together in the House with broad enough backing to withstand the assaults that will surely come in the other chamber.

"The House Democrats have to be the foundation of whatever we do," said an administration official involved in the planning for Mr. Clinton's economic proposals to be outlined in a major address Feb. 17. "They are critical."

The Democratic conference, a Clinton-era version of the once lavish and rollicking retreats at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, has been structured to prepare the members to cast some painful votes.

Top administration officials, including Vice President Al Gore, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, Budget Director Leon E. Panetta and White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty, are expected to warn about the gravity of the nation's economic problems and the need for prompt corrective action.

Following their public sessions, the members are scheduled to break into smaller, private groups, where they will debate alternatives for raising taxes and cutting spending, giving leaders like Mr. Hoyer a chance to do some informal head-counting.

The strategy of the event, much of which will be aired on C-SPAN, is similar to that of Mr. Clinton's economic summit in Little Rock, Ark., last month. No announcements or decisions will be made, but more political groundwork will be laid for the sacrifices that lie ahead.

As with the earlier conferences, corporate sponsors still foot most of the bill for the $200,000 affair. But the lobbyists who once paid $6,000 each to slip away with the legislators to their hideaway have been thrown out and entertainment has been limited to a sock hop in the gymnasium after dinner tonight.

The National Legislative Education Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by lobbyists nearly a decade ago to sponsor these events, is drawing largely on funds collected before February 1989, when the last three-day wingding at the Greenbrier outraged Americans already upset that the House members were about to get a 51 percent pay raise.

John McEvoy, a former Senate staffer and lobbyist for financial institutions who helped set up the foundation, said very little money has been raised since then but would not provide a list of contributors.

The House members contributed $300 each, which covers meals and lodging at the Omni Hotel for themselves and their spouse.

"The funding source has never really a problem," said Mr. Hoyer, who took over as caucus chairman in June of 1989, and redesigned the annual retreats to address the criticism from the last Greenbrier adventure.

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