Democrats enthusiastic as selling drive begins CLINTON'S ECONOMIC PROGRAM

February 19, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Buoyed by overnight polls showing overwhelming support for President Clinton's economic plan, congressional Democrats began yesterday what is likely to be a marathon struggle to put aside their individual complaints to get something passed.

Mr. Clinton apparently served his own cause well with an address Wednesday night that at least yesterday turned the tide of phone calls and polls in his favor.

But as more details become known of the president's ambitious plan to increase taxes and cut spending, lawmakers expect that Mr. Clinton's sales job will get a whole lot tougher.

"It was a good first step," Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said of Mr. Clinton's appearance before Congress and his campaign-like swing through the Midwest yesterday. "But he's got to do this every day for a month."

Especially for the House members, who along with one-third of the Senate are facing election contests in less than two years, it is vital that the president provide political cover by making himself the lightning rod for criticism.

Republicans stepped up their attacks yesterday that the president relied too heavily on tax increases and not enough on spending cuts. They were joined by some conservative Democrats, who said they would seek to add more spending cuts.

"It does not go far enough on the spending-cut side, and you are going to see a coalition come together" to seek more cuts, said Rep. Mike Parker, a Mississippi Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "The 1-to-1 ratio won't wash. It's got to be closer to 2-to-1."

So far, Democratic leaders are delighted with overnight polls that suggested the overwhelming majority of Americans support Mr. Clinton's call for some short-term pain in return for a better future.

"One poll had 79 percent in favor; that says eight of 10 Americans do believe in what we're trying to do," said Steny H. Hoyer, of Maryland, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "Everybody feels very positive this morning."

Phones calls to Capitol Hill on Mr. Clinton's tax-raising plans, which had been almost exclusively negative before the president spoke Wednesday night, began to flow in a nearly even mix after Americans heard Mr. Clinton out.

Even Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole noticed the trend. Before the president's speech, his office reported about 1,500 calls at a ratio of 18 to 1 against Mr. Clinton's plans. By yesterday, the volume was down slightly but the split was 50-50, a spokeswoman for the senator said.

That may prove particularly useful in the Senate, where the president will probably need the cooperation of at least a few Republicans.

In the House, though, the day will have to be carried entirely by Democrats, and Mr. Clinton fashioned his spending program accordingly with the kind of sweeteners Democrats find hard to resist: money for environmental programs, mass transit, child and maternal health care and the universally popular Head Start program. For the more conservative Democrats, the president threw in funds for extra police officers.

Further, the president sought to avoid spending cuts and tax increases that would have put off his party's most influential old bulls.

For example, Vice President Al Gore said yesterday that the administration chose not to propose a carbon tax because it would have had a disproportionate effect on the coal-producing states of West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky.

West Virginia alone could have been their downfall, represented as it is by Robert C. Byrd, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who is an indispensable ally and fierce defender of the coal industry.

But Mr. Clinton fell far short of pleasing everybody.

Rep. Jim Slattery of Kansas said he was hearing complaints about cuts in agriculture subsidies. And restaurant industry lobbyists are gearing up to fight a reduction in the tax breaks for entertaining clients.

"People in Hawaii are very unhappy" about the form of energy tax Mr. Clinton selected because it places a heavy burden on oil, said Daniel K. Inouye, that state's senior senator. Because of Hawaii's remote location, that state depends more on oil than any other.

"Something has to be done about the economy, and people know taxes have to be raised to do it," the senator acknowledged. But, he said, "I will have to insist on accommodations."

Such accommodations will be very difficult to make without upsetting the delicate balance. Restoring a cut or eliminating a tax increase means finding a substitute source of funds.

Mr. Hoyer, who is looking for an alternative to replace several billion dollars saved from a proposed pay freeze on federal workers, acknowledged that he might have to tell his federal worker constituents he just can't do it.

"I'm going to be for this program," Mr. Hoyer said.

The success of Mr. Clinton's program depends on whether he can depend on enough lawmakers outside his party's own leadership to make the same choice when their pet interests are at stake.

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