Stimulus plan tripped on series of misjudgments

April 22, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton climbed aboard Marine One at the beginning of a 5-day whirlwind this month that would take him to Annapolis, the Pacific Northwest and back to Maryland for opening day at Camden Yards, Howard Paster, his congressional liaison chief, brought some unpleasant news.

"We're in trouble in the Senate," Mr. Paster told the president, referring to the president's much-debated $16.3 billion stimulus bill.

Mr. Clinton gazed at Mr. Paster for a moment and simply told him, "Stay in touch."

For the next 21 days, Mr. Paster did just that in daily phone conversations and meetings with his boss. In the end, none of it mattered.

Yesterday, Senate Democrats could not muster enough support defeat a Republican filibuster, effectively killing the president's plan to have Congress appropriate the $16.3 billion as "emergency" spending.

"I must say there's a lot I have to learn about this town," a nonplused Mr. Clinton said yesterday.

A review of how the president and his staff went about selling Mr. Clinton's stimulus package shows that the president's own assessment is probably right -- he does have a lot to learn.

Interviews inside the White House and outside show that the president and his top advisers misjudged the nature of the Republican opposition, failed to realize the scope of the federal budget process and perhaps even misunderstood the public's mood.

Shortly after Mr. Clinton's swearing in, a directive was issued from the White House to the various departments, some of which had only one Clinton appointee in them -- the top person -- for a wish list of long-deferred projects that agencies could spend money on.

At agencies such as the Department of Interior, for example, this directive was followed enthusiastically. With a maintenance backlog in the National Park Service alone estimated at some $4 billion, Interior accountants sent over a list that included replacing dilapidated housing at Grand Canyon National Park, fixing the sewer system at Gateway National Park in New York and paving roads at several far-flung Indian reservations.

On Feb. 18, when the president delivered his State of the Union speech, he called for various spending cuts, a serious attempt at reducing the federal deficit -- and some $16 billion in "emergency" spending.

The speech -- and Mr. Clinton's budget proposals -- were well received by the public and the press, which compared Mr. Clinton to an other president, who 12 years ago rammed his economic vision through Congress.

But though it wasn't immediately apparent, Mr. Clinton had neglected to follow Ronald Reagan's script.

Mr. Reagan and his advisers had consulted early and often with conservative Democrats when trying to pass their package. Mr. Reagan also had focused on his budget to the exclusion of everything else.

By contrast, Mr. Clinton accepted the advice of congressional leaders who argued that with both the White House and both Houses of Congress under firm Democratic control, there was no real reason to negotiate with Republicans. The rest of Mr. Clinton's economic package was sailing through Congress without a hitch, and when it came to the stimulus package, Republicans were simply outvoted in the House.

On March 18, Republicans in the House unveiled a list of their own, however. This list of alleged pork barrel items didn't have $4 billion in unemployment compensation; didn't have paving roads on Indian reservations; and didn't have money for Head Start.

It asserted that the president's jobs bill would really pay for beachfront parking garages in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., swimming pools in Puerto Rico, and funds for studies on how Protestants interact with Catholics.

"Mr. President, don't try to mislead the American people," said Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican. "That bill is laden with pork, waste, fraud."

The battle lines were drawn, but the Clinton White House didn't realize it right away.

Last year, with his ear in finely tuned campaign mode, Mr. Clinton would have picked up on the drive-time talk jockeys who were going crazy over the egregious examples on the Republicans' list.

But this time, he was focused on issues such as Russian aid, morale in the U.S. military, democracy in Haiti, his wife's health care task force, the death of his father-in-law and a dozen other issues.

The president tended to dismiss the Republican objections as ++ FTC posturing, pointing out that the pork-barrel items they held up for public scrutiny were not in his budget, but in a wish list of mayors whose communities stood to received block grants under his plan.

Mr. Clinton also attacked Senate Republicans relentlessly. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole was "against job creation," the president said. Children at the White House Easter Egg roll were being held "hostage" because they couldn't get immunization.

But Mr. Dole, displaying more familiarity with the federal budget than White House officials, fired back that there was billions of left-over money for Mr. Clinton to play with, including $260 million in unspent funds for immunization, and asked, "Where's the emergency?"

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