WASHINGTON -- Listening to the rancorous debate on President Clinton's budget proposals over the next few months, it may be hard to tell that Congress has already adopted the essence of his program.
Mr. Clinton is offering a controversial tax and spending plan that a majority of lawmakers have already endorsed in a budget resolution passed two weeks ago, and he can probably count on getting most of what he's asked for.
But that won't stop the squabbling over high-profile issues, nor guarantee that the president's priorities won't get nickel-and-dimed away as the lawmakers turn to the task of filling in the details of Mr. Clinton's program.
"We had a lot of [political] cover when we passed that budget resolution," observed Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat. "When we have to vote on these things individually, we're going to be standing there naked."
Facing almost universal opposition from the Republicans, Mr. Clinton will have to maintain a working majority of Democrats through a balancing act of persuasive tricks and hard bargains. But that may not prevent another Senate filibuster like the one that now threatens his economic stimulus package. There are only 57 Democratic senators and it takes 60 votes to choke off extended debate.
Even among the Democrats, major fights loom on high-profile social issues, such as abortions for poor women and lifting the ban on gays in the military. Big-ticket projects, such as the atom-smashing super collider and the multi-billion dollar space station, will likely face their toughest opposition ever from budget slashers newly emboldened by Mr. Clinton's promises to cut the deficit by half in five years.
There is also much fury among federal employee unions over Mr. Clinton's pay freeze for federal workers, but they are not expected to be successful in lifting the one-year freeze.
Maryland Democrat Steny H. Hoyer said last week that the prospects were much better for reinstating a locality differential that would grant workers extra compensation for living in high cost areas, such as the Baltimore-Washington corridor .
"But it ain't done yet," Mr. Hoyer cautioned.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge for President Clinton will be to protect his $140 billion in new social spending in areas such as housing, education, mass transportation and technological research. "We're going to have to fight for the president's priorities," said the White House budget chief, Leon E. Panetta, as he unveiled a proposal that asks for $5 billion more for domestic spending than Congress voted to allow in fiscal 1994.
The requirement to make additional cuts grates on the lawmakers, coming as it does while White House officials are pushing Republicans to back down from their filibuster and permit a vote on Mr. Clinton's jobs bill, which includes $16.3 billion in deficit spending.
"Our opponents apparently don't want to hear about the human cost of playing politics at the country's expense," Vice President Al Gore said at the start of a budget briefing yesterday. "So they talk and talk and stall."
Interviewed afterward on CNN, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole replied: "If he keeps talking like that it will be less and less likely there will be a compromise."
Battles over the Clinton shift in spending priorities from national security to urban infrastructure will surely be reflected in consideration of the Pentagon budget.
California Democrat Ronald V. Dellums, the liberal chairman of the House Armed Services committee, has called it a "treading ** water" budget that doesn't cut deeply enough from weapons programs, while his conservative counterpart, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, complains the Defense Department is already taking more than 70 percent of the total Clinton cuts.
President Clinton's proposals to impose a new energy tax and to raise taxes on the rich, corporations and Social Security recipients may have safer passage through Congress -- if only because they will be included in a "reconciliation" bill that is not subject to Senate filibuster.
But the horse-trading, log-rolling and back-scratching that may be necessary to get those proposals out of the tax-law-writing committees is expected to take its toll, especially on the energy tax bill.
"It won't come out as clean as they want; tax bills never do," said a Democratic congressional aide. "There won't be as much money raised, and a lot more will be spent on buying support for the bill" with loopholes.
Meanwhile, the $15 billion investment tax credit that Mr. Clinton intends as a spur to private spending to go along with the public works portion of his economic stimulus bill appears doomed.
Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, said there is little support for the investment tax credit on that critical panel because the members don't believe it will accomplish the president's goal.
"Most business people will tell you it won't change their investment strategy," Mr. Cardin said.
Yesterday's budget proposal also didn't reflect all of the deals that have already been made to get the plan enacted. For example, a proposed increase in fees for grazing and mining on federal lands was included in the budget, though the chances of enactment are nil since the administration agreed at the request of Western state senators to drop the fee boosts from the budget resolution.
An unusual number of such bargains have already been struck because the lawmakers feared the Clinton program might be moving too fast to change later.