Congress standoff isn't playing well with reform voters


April 17, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Today, President Clinton will travel to Pittsburgh to press the case of his scaled-down $12 billion jobs bill at the very moment congressional Republicans are holding coast-to-coast town meetings to explain why they have stalled the plan.

But what are ordinary Americans to think of all this? Didn't they just vote last November? Weren't these economic issues debated endlessly during the campaign?

And, finally, if the 1992 election answered any single question, wasn't it that this is precisely the kind of political stalemate the Americans are sick to death of?

Out in Sacramento, Calif., commercial real estate broker Dan Petrocchi thinks so. He is writing only the second letter of his life to Congress.

"We voted for change and we're not getting it because the Republicans are trying to teach the new kid on the block a lesson," he said. "Whether Clinton's program is right or wrong . . . we want change, and we're really frustrated we're not getting it. People voted for the guy and they want to see if his program works."

Both sides in this struggle -- the White House and the Senate Republicans -- believe they are attuned to the public's wishes.

Mr. Clinton and his advisers insist that the public is frightened by the still-stagnant economy and an unemployment rate that can't seem to get below 7 percent and that they want a leader who will give the economy a boost.

Mr. Clinton's economic stimulus package, the White House says, will provide much-needed summer jobs, launch a few public works projects and instill a sense of derring-do in the American people.

Republicans counter that the real lesson of the 1992 election is that the public wants the government to trim unnecessary government "pork" and break its addiction to deficit spending.

"I don't think they are mutually exclusive," said Bailey Fine, who runs the Baltimore district office for Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. Ms. Fine said that the congressman's mail had been running about 50-50 on this issue.

"They don't like the gridlock,"added political author Michael Barone.

"But I don't think they like government spending, either."

"We've put this question to people in focus groups," said White House political adviser Paul Begala. "People go 2-1 with the Democrats."

Various surveys do suggest broad public support for the president's program.

A poll done in the first week of March for NBC News found that by a majority of 50 percent to 40 percent, Americans agreed that "government spending is necessary to stimulate the economy."

A survey done a month later by Princeton Survey Research found that 57 percent of the public wanted Congress to pass the stimulus package.

They are voters such as Nancy Smith, a New York women's magazine editor, who not only supports the president but is angry at his opponents.

"I don't know where they get off doing this," she said. "The Republicans certainly had their chance. . . . I don't care what anybody says, this economy stinks. You see so many people unemployed -- and even the ones with jobs are under-employed."

Political observers in Washington have often criticized Mr. Clinton for not anticipating the Senate filibuster and acting to head it off.

That's not how it seems to Sue Barry, a 50-year-old school teacher from Montara, Calif. "I think he was surprised the Republicans didn't share his willingness to put the past behind and just work to help the country," she said. "He didn't really think the Republicans would do this slimy stuff."

Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Rep. Richard K. Armey of Texas reply that it is Mr. Clinton who pulled a fast one.

He ran on a solemn promise of not raising taxes and gave a State of the Union speech in which he detailed the reasons for controlling government spending as well as "investing" in the future.

But when his budget came out, government spending actually rose.

"I don't like it," said Donna Miller, a blind, 42-year-old Ross Perot volunteer who recently moved from Ashland, Ky. to Dallas.

"I'm really upset about all the extra things in the budget. I live on $430 a month in Social Security, and I really don't want them to spend $210,000 to study why cows belch in Wisconsin. Who gives a hoot?"

Don Bakehorn, a 57-year-old Indiana printing company executive, said that was pretty much the consensus at the regular Friday afternoon lunch at the Grant Street Bar and Grill in Peru, Ind., yesterday.

"I'm an independent, but I think the Republicans are right in this instance," he said. "We need to control the deficit before raising taxes."

Republican members of Congress home for the recess are taking heart from such comments -- and from a Republican Party-commissioned poll that shows that support for the Clinton budget dips if people are told that it doesn't actually lessen government spending.

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