Clinton ready to alter stimulus plan Tactics change as GOP filibusters

April 07, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Outwardly, the Republican filibuster that has stymied President Clinton's $16.3 billion economic stimulus package may look like the kind of congressional bickering most voters long ago learned to ignore.

Beneath the surface, however, it is turning into the first major test of whether Mr. Clinton has the strength and leadership skills to turn his broad policy agenda into reality.

As a campaigner, Mr. Clinton long ago proved himself a master at winning over ordinary voters, successfully playing the role of an earnest outsider determined to change a cynical system and using television in innovative ways to go over the heads of those who would oppose him.

Now, as president, he faces a different challenge: the insiders' test of hand-to-hand combat with an intractable opposition that is hard to bulldoze and cannot be charmed with high rhetoric.

If Mr. Clinton does not find a way to overcome or compromise with the Republican minority on the stimulus package, lawmakers and analysts say, he faces the prospect of seeing this same drama played out over and over again on more critical votes on health care, tax increases and spending cuts.

If the Republicans prevail on the stimulus issue, "it just means the president's whole program is going to go down," said Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., one of Mr. Clinton's closest allies in Congress.

The stimulus proposals, which Mr. Clinton says will give the economy a needed lift and his opponents portray as a warmed-over version of the liberals' old tax-and-spend game, is relatively small potatoes in the $1.5 trillion federal budget.

But Senate Republicans and some conservative Democrats believe that Mr. Clinton is politically vulnerable because the plan proposes new spending at a time when the president has promised to cut the deficit. Using legislative guerrilla tactics, they have blocked action on the package itself and hope to use the issue as a vehicle for seizing control of the overall debate on America's economic future.

For a week, Republicans tied up the Senate with a filibuster the Democrats could not muster enough votes to break.

After initially giving no ground, Mr. Clinton indicated yesterday that he is ready to consider a deal. At the same time, he renewed his threat to attack the GOP as perpetuators of gridlock.

Speaking only hours after the Senate broke for its Easter recess without ending the filibuster, Mr. Clinton declared at a news conference: "I'm going to work on an amended proposal, and I think we'll address some of the legitimate expressed objections. . . . We'll see when Congress comes back whether Republicans are committed to putting the American people back to work or playing politics."

Mr. Clinton enjoys a heavy Democratic majority in the House, where anything can be accomplished with the support of 50 percent plus one. In the Senate, Mr. Clinton has so far fallen three Democrats short of the 60 votes he needs to cut off a filibuster.

That reality is something Mr. Clinton apparently has just begun to understand. "A compromise was sort of inevitable," conservative Democratic Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana said.

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