Senate puts Clinton win in jeopardy Impasse over jobs slows momentum

April 04, 1993|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A Senate showdown that threatens to forc President Clinton into an embarrassing retreat on his short-term jobs bill has eclipsed the huge victory he scored last week on a far more important component of his economic program.

When the lawmakers agreed Thursday in a budget resolution to produce $496 billion worth of spending cuts and tax increases over the next five years, they signed on to the president's crusade to cut the budget deficit in half and reorder the nation's priorities.

Although the budget resolution isn't legally binding, it has effectively committed Congress to key elements of the president's plan: a new tax on energy, higher income taxes for the rich and for some Social Security recipients and deep cuts in defense to finance more social investment.

"We've crossed that bridge," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat. "There's no other way you can explain this vote."

But the political and psychological momentum Mr. Clinton should have gained may be lost in the Senate furor over his $16.3 billion economic stimulus proposal -- a package that was supposed to be the most appealing part of the program.

"It's like nobody even noticed it," a White House official said yesterday of the budget resolution. "All they're paying attention to is this stimulus fight."

Senate Republicans, galvanized into extraordinary unity by the ham-fisted approach the White House and Senate Democratic leaders have used to try to get the stimulus package through intact, completed yesterday their eighth day of a filibuster that shows little sign of breaking.

A second unsuccessful attempt by the Democrats to muster the 60 votes needed to choke off the talkathon resulted during yesterday's unusual Saturday session in a party-line, 52-37 tally, with senators absent on both sides.

The Democrats did better Friday, when their side totaled 55. But even if all 57 Democrats vote to shut off the filibuster, they'll still need three Republicans to join them.

A simple majority of 51 would be enough to enact the stimulus bill into law.

In his weekly radio address yesterday, President Clinton called on Americans to help break the impasse.

"The people know that America needs our plan to put 500,000 Americans back to work by beginning the investments we need in a stronger, smarter economy," Mr. Clinton said. "I ask you to call or write your senators, ask them to take action on our jobs and economic recovery package."

But the GOP is gambling that voters favor belt-tightening over new spending and are not concerned about gridlock if the cause seems just.

As Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell began an afternoon of private negotiations with Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole yesterday, it was no longer a question of whether the president will have to yield on some parts of the $16.3 billion

package. The issue had become: How much can he salvage?

Sen. John B. Breaux, D-La., who has been among conservative Democrats seeking to pare down the jobs bill, said he had talked with White House officials.

"I think they are ready to see what it would take to break the logjam," Mr. Breaux said yesterday. "I think the White House is now willing to listen to compromise proposals."

The Republicans argue the package contains a lot of unnecessary spending that will create no more than temporary, "make-work" jobs. They say the stimulus bill contradicts the basic thrust of Mr. Clinton's economic program because it would immediately add to the deficit he has pledged to cut.

Mr. Dole proposed Friday that the package be trimmed down to "a leaner, meaner alternative" that would include money for unemployment benefits, summer jobs, child immunizations, highways and mass transit.

The major element missing from that proposal would be the $3 billion Mr. Clinton included for Community Development Block Grants, which could be used for a wide variety of projects, including swimming pools and tennis courts, that the Republicans have gleefully proclaimed to be less than worthy of driving up the national debt.

But those block grants represent a crucial part of the package for the liberal Democrats, who have pressured Mr. Clinton into his hard-line stance on the issue.

The Congressional Black Caucus in the House of Representatives threatened to revolt when the word of a possible compromise surfaced three weeks ago. Black lawmakers and other urban liberals argued that Mr. Clinton had given away more than enough to conservatives when he acquiesced to an additional $76 billion in spending cuts on his budget proposal.

That prompted the president into a strong-arm approach on the stimulus package that differed markedly from his willingness to make all manner of deals on the budget resolution.

In addition to the spending cuts he gave budget committee conservatives, the president appeased Western senators by dropping a plan to raise the fees for grazing and mining on federal lands.

Plus, Northeastern senators got a break on the energy tax for home heating oil, and Midwestern senators won an exemption for ethanol. An $8.8 billion cut in agriculture programs next year was reduced to $4.5 billion. A proposed increase in the fuel tax on barges to $1.17 per gallon from 17 cents per gallon is certain to be reduced.

But when the stimulus bill hit the floor of the Senate 10 days ago, Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, had it so tightly wound up in procedural knots that it wasn't even possible to offer amendments.

That technique works in the House, where the majority rules like a dictator.

In the Senate, though, it rankled enough to rouse the Republicans from their post-election funk.

"The Republicans have their blood up, and we're their prey," said Democratic Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York.

"They're kind of enjoying it, as well they may. It's so rare."

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