WASHINGTON -- President Clinton was right about everything except the timing when he warned Monday that special interests would begin attacking his economic program "within minutes" of the conclusion of his speech to Congress tonight.
In fact, the attack has already begun, from coal companies and presumably from other industries concerned about an expected broad-based energy tax.
On Capitol Hill, three representatives of ARCO, a major oil and chemical company, met in secret yesterday with six aides to members of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and discussed the tax issue over turkey sandwiches. Though a company official said it has not taken a position on the tax, participants in the meeting said ARCO lobbyists tried to raise questions about how such a tax could be constructed.
Mr. Clinton said Monday in a short speech that "within minutes of the time I conclude my address to Congress Wednesday night, the special interests will be out in force" to respond. He said that "many have already lined the corridors of power with high-priced lobbyists."
There was evidence of that yesterday. Tom Korologos, a veteran lobbyist whose clients include energy interests, was outside the Senate chamber, waiting to talk to senators.
His energy clients have "been jittery since the election," he said, adding, however, that he has not actually done any lobbying on the energy tax issue.
Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, said lobbyists representing a variety of groups and interests have already come calling with the message that "they would like the sacrifice to come from someone else."
As described by administration and congressional sources, the energy tax would be assessed on the basis of the energy content -- specifically, the number of British Thermal Units (BTUs) -- of various fuels.
A National Coal Association spokesman, John Grasser, said that because coal costs less per BTU than other fuels, the tax would rob coal of some of its competitive advantage. "We'll . . . advise members of Congress on how we think this tax is going to negatively affect the coal industry," he said.
Noting the congressional elections next year, he said: "Those are the folks who will have to go home and explain why they voted to raise their taxes. So I don't think this is going to be a fait accompli. I think it's going to be a very hard sell."
The association is preparing "white papers" to argue its position against the tax and expects to encourage member companies to bring the message to their congressional representatives and employees, Mr. Grasser said.
Other aspects of the economic program Mr. Clinton will discuss in his speech are expected to run into fierce opposition, but likely foes said they were holding their fire until they heard the president spell it out.
Some groups said they were waiting to find out whether, as promised, he would distribute the pain of higher taxes and spending cuts fairly, across a broad spectrum, rather than singling out particular classes of individuals.
Some groups representing the elderly -- who would feel the pinch of his expected proposal to increase taxes on Social Security income for the wealthiest recipients -- said they wouldn't necessarily fight Mr. Clinton. They said they want also to see his health care plan, which isn't due until May 1.
"What AARP is looking for is an economic package . . . that shows shared sacrifice across the board, across generations -- that everyone is going to contribute, if that's the new word, to reduce the federal budget deficit," said Dawn Kelly-Duncan, spokeswoman for the American Association of Retired Persons.
Dan Schulder, legislative director of the National Council of Senior Citizens, said the organization wanted to know how Mr. Clinton would use the additional revenue raised by taxing a larger proportion of Social Security benefits received by individuals with incomes above $25,000.
If the money helps pay for an expansion of health services, the council is likely to be more supportive, "because that's what we think is an appropriate use of those funds," Mr. Schulder said. Hospitals and doctors, who would receive less income if the administration freezes Medicare prices, nonetheless declined to immediately attack this part of the program.
If Mr. Clinton's overall economic program improves life in communities where hospitals provide service, then everyone benefits, said an American Hospital Association spokesman, Richard Wade.
The group will remind the president and Congress of the impact of a Medicare freeze on hospitals.
"This is going to be hard on some institutions," Mr. Wade said. "It may be hard on some communities. We're going to make sure the administration understands the impact. That's part of our responsibility."