WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's $16 billion economic stimulus proposal is facing growing resistance from moderate and conservative Democrats whose support is critical to its approval.
Many Democrats are reluctant to oppose openly a key element of the Clinton program, but they say the spending package sends the wrong signal at a time when voters are asking for budget cuts.
The stimulus bill "puts me in a very tough position," said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a Texas Democrat who is chairman of the 50-member Conservative Democratic Forum in the House. Mr. Stenholm said he spent much of last year fighting against using money cut from the defense budget for many of the same purposes the president is suggesting.
The lack of enthusiasm among Democrats is weakening the program's chances with politically costly delays.
Mr. Clinton has already accepted a delay of several weeks or more in the speedy schedule for congressional action he originally sought for the bill. That change alone makes the measure more vulnerable to becoming hopelessly snarled in the complicated legislative process.
Meanwhile, conservative Democrats in the House and Senate are seeking to postpone action on the measure further, until the president's entire tax and spending package can be voted on, late in the spring at the earliest.
The package is a combination of public works projects and additional money for programs such as Head Start, summer jobs for youths and child immunization.
Several Democrats expressed skepticism that the $16 billion spending plan could survive on its own in the Senate, where the temptation to add on more spending or fight over what is already there will be much greater.
Sen. David L. Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat, suggested, for example, that the package be trimmed to its most timely elements, such as the summer jobs program, and that the rest be postponed.
He and other moderate and conservative Democrats wield the crucial swing votes in the debate over Mr. Clinton's economic plan.
Even among Mr. Clinton's strongest backers, there isn't much support for the stimulus package, because many don't believe it will do much to boost the economy.
"I never thought it mattered that much if we have a short-term stimulus," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who is considered part of the more solid liberal support for the program.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said yesterday that the delay Mr. Clinton agreed to Tuesday would be brief, two weeks or so, to give the lawmakers time to prepare a budget resolution with the broad outline of Mr. Clinton's tax increase and budget-cutting plans that would be voted on simultaneously.
The House Appropriations Committee stands ready to approve the stimulus measure as Mr. Clinton proposed it, Mr. Foley said, adding that he hadn't heard any Democrats say they would vote against it.
But time and cumbersome procedures often do the real dirty work.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said yesterday that Mr. Clinton agreed to a delay on the stimulus package only
because he doesn't have the votes to get it through.
Mr. Clinton, however, denied Mr. Dole's assertion that his economic plan is in any real trouble.
"Well, I think you have to expect that there would be some trouble," he said. "The surveys show that a big majority of the American people support my initiative . . . and I never expected this to be easy, you know. This is a fundamental change."
A group of moderate House Democrats appealed to Mr. Clinton before his economic address last week not to offer a separate spending bill before a vote on his broader program.
The president didn't respond, but in less than a week, faxes, phone calls and poll responses from voters seeking spending cuts led to a reshuffling of the legislative agenda, which now calls for the budget resolution with the broad outlines of Mr. Clinton's plan to come up first in mid-March to late March.
The stimulus package also would be offered before the lawmakers' Easter break begins on April 2. Both votes would come before Mr. Clinton released the details of his fiscal 1994 budget on April 5, nearly two weeks later than he originally planned.
A so-called budget reconciliation bill containing all of the tax and spending legislation necessary to enact Mr. Clinton's plan would be completed by August.
But that schedule is still unacceptable to many conservative and moderate legislators.
"We were expecting a lot more from the Clinton plan than what he gave us," said Rep. Timothy J. Penny, a Minnesota Democrat active in the successful drive to delay a vote on new spending until a plan for cutting the deficit is passed.
Sen. Bob Kerrey argued that despite the show of strength by conservative Democrats, Mr. Clinton has won a major victory by "changing the dynamic of the debate."
"We've got liberals agreeing to spending cuts, conservatives and even some Republicans agreeing to tax increases," the Nebraska Democrat said. "Now we're just debating the details, and the range of motion is not as great as it appears."
But the pendulum seems to be swinging away from the liberal groups Mr. Clinton sought to appease with many elements of his $16 billion short-term spending plan and toward the budget-cutting concerns of the swing voters who used to be known as Reagan Democrats.