President on the line? Sorry, wrong number Dogged lobbying spooks Democrats

May 29, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The White House telephone operators can reach Boris N. Yeltsin or Queen Elizabeth II in a snap. But they could not find Rep. Collin C. Peterson all Thursday afternoon.

He was hiding from the president in the House gym.

By his own account, the Minnesota Democrat preferred straining his biceps by pressing barbells to telling President Clinton that he did not want to vote for the administration's budget plan. Like other lawmakers coming under the White House squeeze, Mr. Peterson agonized that his vote could sink the new president.

But a junior lawmaker can only sweat it out so long. Mr. Peterson broke down to take Mr. Clinton's call in the final minutes before casting his vote Thursday night, and then he changed his mind. "The president said, 'I'm new on the job, and I need your help,' " Mr. Peterson recalled. "He said, 'Give me a chance and I'll try to help you out with your problems.' "

Mr. Clinton clinched Mr. Peterson's vote when he promised to agree to reductions in the energy tax, which the Minnesota lawmaker contends would hit farmers especially hard. Still, Mr. Peterson said his commitment was conditioned on the pledge that the final version of the legislation would have a very different energy tax when it's sent back to the House after votes by the Senate and a House-Senate conference committee.

"If we don't get changes, I'll vote no" on final passage, Mr. Peterson concluded. "I told him that."

Mr. Peterson's decision was one of a handful of last-minute switches that helped Mr. Clinton to his narrow 219-to-213 victory. Backed by the House leadership, Mr. Clinton doled out heaps of sugar and salt to cook up deals.

Some conservative Democratic lawmakers said that in exchange for their votes, Mr. Clinton even agreed to remove some younger, inexperienced officials in the White House -- and steer his administration back to its centrist roots.

The intensity of the administration lobbying was so fierce that some of the 38 Democrats who broke with their party have expressed fear that they may face punishment from their leaders and the White House for years. One lawmaker said the anxiety was punctuated by Ike Skelton of Missouri, a ranking 62-year-old member of the House, when he sprinted out of the Democratic cloakroom rather than take a call from the president to explain his opposition.

"I have the marks; I have been whipped," said Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania, who still voted with the Republicans.

After he reluctantly voted against the president, Rep. Sam Coppersmith of Arizona slouched in a chair off the House floor. His body limp, his eyes bloodshot, he looked as if he had aged a decade in a few hours. Recalling three calls from the president that day, he said: "I couldn't say no to the president, so I said, 'Mr. President, I can't say yes.' I didn't cast the vote with any pleasure."

Charlie Rose, a North Carolina Democrat who heads the House Agriculture Committee, was able to deliver a handful of votes from rural lawmakers by winning promises that the administration would consider raising tariffs on imported peanut and tobacco products.

In the pre-dawn hours Thursday, House leaders won the commitment of a few influential moderates and conservatives by agreeing to a new set of budget procedures meant to control spending on Social Security and other benefit programs.

But at 4 p.m., Mr. Clinton was still short, and House leaders discussed whether to delay a vote until after the Memorial Day recess. "They rolled the dice," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, after concluding that a delay would be viewed as a defeat for the president and might cause a further erosion of votes. "This was a real slog," the New York Democrat said.

As late as 7 p.m., less than two hours before the vote, the House Speaker, Thomas S. Foley of Washington, and the majority leader, Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, had only 213 firm votes, four short of what they needed.

The White House made a big effort to win over Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, a prominent member of the Democratic Party conservative wing, who had declared his opposition to the economic program and criticized the administration for veering left. House leaders had written off Mr. McCurdy and advised Mr. Clinton against calling him.

But the president disagreed, in part because of his friendship with the Oklahoma Democrat but also because he thought Mr. McCurdy could bring a few votes with him. On Thursday, Mr. McCurdy received calls from Mr. Clinton, Thomas F. McLarty III, the chief of staff, and Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, during which he called for cuts in the energy tax and pledges that the administration would seek more spending cuts.

Mr. McCurdy and his allies struck a deal 10 minutes after voting began.

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