WASHINGTON -- President Clinton agreed yesterday to accept a reduced version of his $16.3 billion jobs bill after a lobbying campaign not only failed to pick up any Republican Senate support but helped cost him the votes of two Democrats.
Senators Russ Feingold and Herbert H. Kohl, two Wisconsin Democrats who had been in the "maybe" category on the White House head count, announced this week that they would oppose the economic stimulus package unless changes were made to reduce its effect on the budget deficit.
That left a bare minimum of 51 committed votes in favor of the legislation, with six of the Senate's 57 Democrats considered likely opponents. Mr. Clinton is also still at least four votes short of the 60 he needs to end the Republican filibuster that is preventing the House-passed measure from coming up for a Senate vote.
It wasn't clear yesterday how far the president might have to go to find a compromise that would end the filibuster and secure enough support to win final passage of the stimulus bill. But the White House acknowledged that the original $16.3 billion proposal of speedy public works spending designed to create new jobs is effectively dead.
"I'm willing to compromise so long as we keep the focus on jobs, keep the focus on growth and keep the focus on meeting unmet national needs," Mr. Clinton said at a Rose Garden ceremony yesterday.
"Our opponents have been asking for a smaller package, and today I ask them to join me in determining exactly what kind and what size package Congress can approve that actually meets the needs of the American people."
Asked what programs he considered vital, Mr. Clinton listed summer jobs, highway spending, the rehiring of police, employment of more meat inspectors and health care programs for AIDS victims.
Notably, the president didn't include on his top priority list the $2.5 billion for Community Development Block Grants that has been a lightning rod for Republican charges of unnecessary "pork barrel" spending.
Just trimming the package may not be enough, however.
Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who raised the stimulus issue with Mr. Clinton in a long-distance telephone conversation Wednesday, is insisting that most, if not all, of the new spending be offsets by cuts elsewhere in the budget.
"We had a good visit, but it's clear -- as I told him -- that we still had a 'fundamental difference' when it came to his plan to add $19 billion to the federal deficit instead of paying for all the new spending," Mr. Dole said.
He was including in his total $3.5 billion in additional money that would be released from the highway trust fund if the stimulus bill passes.
Before the Senate adjourned April 5 for its two-week Easter break, the White House had tentatively signed off on a deal with the Republicans to free a $4 billion component of the package, which would extend unemployment benefits for 1.8 million jobless Americans, to be adopted on its own. The rest of the package would have been abandoned if the filibuster couldn't be broken next week.
Mr. Clinton later decided to keep his options open as he waged a public and private crusade to turn around Republican opposition to the measure.
The president's lobbying campaign appeared to have backfired
Wednesday, however, when the White House spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, included Wisconsin in a list of states where projects are being held up because of the Senate's failure to act on the stimulus package.
"The gridlock is preventing the city of Milwaukee from receiving wastewater treatment funds it needs to clean up the contamination in its water system," Mr. Stephanopoulos said, referring to an outbreak of digestive illness that is requiring Milwaukee residents to boil their water.
But the charge annoyed Senators Kohl and Feingold, who contend that the wastewater funds have nothing to do with the contamination problem, and prompted both to declare their opposition to the stimulus bill.
It was a "cheap shot," Dan Walter, an aide to Mr. Kohl, said of Mr. Stephanopoulos' comment.
Mr. Kohl, who was prevented by Democratic leaders from offering an amendment to the stimulus package that would have required about half the items to be offset by spending cuts, was never considered sure vote for the package -- although he did support an end to the filibuster.
Mr. Feingold, who said he privately informed his Democratic colleagues of his concerns about the legislation before the Easter recess, also voted to choke off the GOP filibuster. But he says he wants some assurance that the deficit-reduction parts of President Clinton's economic plan become law before the new spending goes through.