Clinton's balm and muscle acclaimed

March 19, 1993|By Fort Worth Star-Telegram

WASHINGTON -- After winning election on the promise of economic change, President Clinton is pushing his ideas through Congress with a combination of goodwill, smooth salesmanship

and strong-arm tactics that has left even his detractors shaking their heads in grudging admiration.

Despite solid Republican opposition and grumbling among conservative Democrats, Mr. Clinton won House passage last night of his blueprint for cutting the deficit and his spending package to revive the economy.

Lawmakers said Mr. Clinton steamrollered his opponents by winning over the American public, personally lobbying members Congress and relying on the power of House leaders to control their troops.

"He's done a great selling job. The pieces fell together into a political masterpiece," said Rep. Pete Geren, D-Texas, who said he was inclined to vote against Mr. Clinton's budget package despite pressure from Democratic leaders. "They pulled it off real well."

House Republican Leader Bob Michel was less complimentary, but even he acknowledged Mr. Clinton's masterful use of the powers of his office. The House debate on Mr. Clinton's complex proposal came just a month after the new president unveiled his plan for higher taxes and spending cuts.

"There's no question it has been well-packaged and sold to the public in a slick, expensive telemarketing campaign," said Mr. Michel, of Illinois. "The Democratic Party's hard sell has convinced a majority of Americans that President Clinton's plan has merit."

The sales job started in earnest on Feb. 17, when Mr. Clinton outlined his proposal in a nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress. The president began building grass-roots support for the package the next day by taking to the road with members of his Cabinet.

Lawmakers said Mr. Clinton's success in rallying voters helped stifle congressional dissent because House members did not want to take the blame for derailing the president's package.

"I think they've gone home and found that the public likes what they've heard Clinton say," said Rep. John Bryant, D-Texas. "Everyone is tired of gridlock."

Even lawmakers from districts that voted against Mr. Clinton in November said they found support for the package back home.

"He won only one county out of 20 in my district," said Rep. Nathan Deal, a Georgia Democrat. "There's still a feeling out there that they want to give the president a chance. I think everybody wants him to succeed."

While courting the general public, Mr. Clinton and other White House officials also launched an intense lobbying campaign aimed at lawmakers. The president's full-court press included a series of last-minute phone calls and letters to House members.

Some wavering Democrats, including Mr. Geren, were offered a chance to talk with the president personally about their concerns.

"He's spending tons of time on the telephone," Mr. Geren said.

The leadership strategy proved effective with some conservatives who had been uneasy about aspects of the economic package.

"We don't want to put a torpedo in the boat," said Rep. Charles Wilson, D-Texas. "I campaigned hard for Clinton, and I think the people expect not to get gridlock."

Conservative Democrats led by Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, had complained that Mr. Clinton's plan to boost spending on highways and other projects would unnecessarily increase the federal deficit.

Barred from offering an alternative, Mr. Stenholm acknowledged that he did not have the votes to defeat Mr. Clinton's package. "We struck out," he said. "The president is a very powerful lobbyist."

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