Democrats face tough decisions Support for tax rise could prove costly CLINTON'S ECONOMIC PROGRAM

February 18, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Despite all their bravado last night, it's a good bet that most Democrats in Congress woke up this morning with the cold sweats.

Their president has asked them to approve huge tax increases and cut popular programs in a quest for economic growth and deficit reduction -- with no guarantee that the plan will work.

Phone calls from home districts already suggest that if the legislators heed him they are likely to be punished at the polls. Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, for instance, received 475 calls yesterday, and 90 percent of the callers were opposed to tax increases.

But if the Democratic-controlled Congress tries to make too many changes in Mr. Clinton's plan, it could easily fall apart. And many Democrats are terrified that if they limit action, populists such as Ross Perot will drive them out of office in two years.

"There is a lot of angst," said Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who has become a sounding board for the private fears of his colleagues.

In orchestrating the Democratic response to Mr. Clinton's proposals, the White House set a modest guideline: Don't bail out right away.

None of the legislators was asked to endorse the program as offered. All were given the latitude to note that they disagreed with some elements while reserving judgment on the final package.

"Wait until you see the details," Vice President Al Gore pleaded at a private session with House members yesterday morning, one participant said. "Give it a chance. Let's put together a package that can pass both houses."

Mr. Clinton has used a series of meetings with legislators to try to smooth the path for his plan, but no one believes his plan will survive intact on Capitol Hill.

Yesterday, in briefing Democratic and Republican congressional leaders at the White House, he said, "My duty is to convince them, and I will."

But even House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., and SenatMajority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, refrained from an unqualified endorsement of the president's plan after yesterday's briefing.

The two would say only that they had promised the president their support.

Hinting at changes, Mr. Foley said he is "confident the Congress will enact the proposal in its overall direction" and that "great substance" of it will survive.

Whatever the shape of the final package, Democrats predict thathey will get no help from Republicans, who say Mr. Clinton is relying too much on tax increases and not enough on trimming the budget.

Republicans derided the Clinton plan yesterday as a typical Democratic tax-and-spend solution to the nation's problems.

"Tax & Spend. Again," said a button worn by some House Republicans yesterday. Another button contended, "It's Spending, Stupid," a parody of the Clinton campaign motto: "It's the economy, stupid."

"There's nothing fair about raising taxes on the middle class," said Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. "There's nothing fair about raising taxes, period, unless you couple that with tough spending cuts."

Mr. Dole said Mr. Clinton has confined his cuts to "gutting defense and not much else."

Although the Republicans have not come up with their own proposal for cutting the budget, that kind of talk means trouble for the Democrats beyond losing the Republicans' votes.

"It's my experience that people who talk about belt-tightening are never the ones whose belts get tightened," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who pleaded with his colleagues yesterday not to buy into such talk.

Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, said he is even concerned about what others expect to be the easiest part of the package: the $16 billion public works package for short-term stimulus that legislative leaders hope to pass within a month.

Mr. Kerrey predicted that the Clinton package will bog down in a competition between legislators trying to make sure their constituents get as much out of it as everyone else does.

And, even though that early legislation will include no tax increases, Mr. Kerrey said that those who have been tagged to pay the bill later are not likely to wait before they protest.

Proving his point, Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm immediately branded the stimulus bill "pork barrel for the big cities" that "poor truckers" from his state wouldn't want to finance by paying higher fuel taxes.

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