A great sense of urgency and more than a little fear has overtaken House Democrats as they contemplate the spending cuts and tax increases President Clinton is expected to call on them to pass.
"We take the first bite of the apple and we're ready to go," Illinois Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, told a top Clinton adviser yesterday. "But I can tell you I've got a lot of moisture on my hands."
There were sweaty palms all around as Ira Magaziner, Mr. Clinton's top domestic policy adviser, opened the two-day House Democratic conference at the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus with a grim recitation of the long-term structural problems in the nation's economy that could take years of sacrifice to correct.
Mr. Magaziner also made it clear that the Clinton administration plans no more than a $15 billion to $20 billion program to stimulate a short-term burst of new jobs.
"They left behind a real mess," he said of the Republican Reagan and Bush administrations. "Job No. 1 has to be cutting the deficit. We need to convince the American people that we are fiscally responsible."
Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said the administration would propose more spending cuts than revenue increases but that the cuts would not "weaken programs to the point of collapse."
In remarks prepared for the Democrats' dinner last night, he also promised that President Clinton "will be with you on the firing line when the time comes."
"If there is blame -- if we blow one -- we'll stand by your side and take our share of it," Mr. Bentsen said.
Maybe so, but the House members are keenly aware that they will come up for re-election two years earlier than Mr. Clinton.
The consensus of the approximately 170 Democrats seemed to be that if tough things must be done, they must be done soon.
"Even though we probably have to do things that are painful, we'd like to see some of the benefits occur before the next two years are up," said Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma.
West Virginia Rep. Robert E. Wise Jr., who serves on the Public Works Committee, suggested that special signs be posted on the roughly $15 billion worth of new highway, bridge and mass transit projects Mr. Clinton is expected to propose in a supplemental appropriations bill for short-term economic stimulus.
Mr. Wise said he wanted voters to see the signs on construction sites by this summer so they would know "that something is being done."
President Clinton and his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill are enamored with the example set 12 years ago by former President Ronald Reagan.
Even though the Democrats complain bitterly about Mr. Reagan's policies and blame him for most of their current problems, they admired his style in selling the nation and the Congress on a radically different course.
The Democratic members of Congress hope Mr. Clinton will imitate Mr. Reagan by using his State of the Union address Feb. 17 to lay out the case for harsh medicine.
Vice President Al Gore, who made his first trip out of Washington since the inauguration, urged the legislators to work with the Clinton administration, saying neither the White House nor Congress will win if both attempt one-upmanship.
Mr. Gore also pledged administration support when the House Democrats are asked to cast tough votes, saying: "This White House will fight with you." But the congressmen expect the White House to be leading the charge.
Getting out the message to the electorate will be even more important and more difficult on health-care reform than on the economic program, predicted Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
"I have never seen such a great disparity between what the public expects and what the experts expect," he said. "To the public, health-care reform means more services for less cost. But everyone involved in trying to come up with a health-reform program knows it means fewer services for more money."