BATON ROUGE -- John B. Breaux, friend of Bill Clinton, ally of Louisiana's energy industry and the senator who figures to broker the deal that will save the president's energy tax, couldn't resist invoking the Kingfish.
Pointing from a window in his 20th-floor office to Huey Long's statue on the state Capitol grounds, Mr. Breaux noted that the legendary governor is buried beneath the monument and that his likeness faces the state house to make sure the legislators "don't screw up."
Mr. Breaux predicted that after the Senate Finance Committee votes on the tax bill later this month, "I'm going to be buried right next to him -- facing down into the ground."
But he doesn't mean it for a minute.
A Clinton-style New Democrat with some of the same aspirations for national attention, John Breaux has positioned himself to be the man in the middle in the tax debate, and he thrives on the power that brings.
"I'd love to be the tie vote," Mr. Breaux said, referring to the tax-writing Finance Committee, which has 11 Democrats and nine Republicans and will likely need every Democrat to pass a tax bill. "People say: 'God, isn't that terrible [to be the tie-breaker.]' I say: 'No, that's wonderful.' "
The great advantage for the 49-year-old, two-term senator, apart from his newfound national profile, is that he can practically dictate the shape of the compromise.
He anticipates a meeting at the White House early next week to begin shaping a consensus bill that will include a sharply reduced energy tax -- or none at all. Mr. Breaux would replace the Btu tax on the heat content of fuel with a higher gasoline tax, which many Louisianans figure is less painful, if only because it doesn't affect the air conditioning that is so critical in this steamy climate.
Earned income credit
Mr. Breaux, who represents one of the poorest states in the nation, estimates that 75 percent of his constituents earn less than $30,000 a year, which would qualify them for the earned income tax credit -- a little-discussed tax break in the Clinton bill.
There would also be at least $30 billion of deeper spending cuts -- tough things like raising premiums on the elderly for Medicare coverage and requiring higher co-payments for home health care.
l "I think all of you are sophisticated enough to know there are no easy answers when it comes to a $4 trillion debt and a $350 billion annual deficit," Mr. Breaux told a luncheon group of business and government leaders Thursday in Lake Charles, a hub of the petrochemical industry.
Democratic Sen. David G. Boren of Oklahoma inadvertently did Mr. Breaux a favor two weeks ago when he joined with Republicans to propose that the president's Btu tax be scrapped. "He created the opportunity for a middle ground," Mr. Breaux explained.
While Mr. Boren earned the enmity of the White House and many of his fellow Democrats by nearly sabotaging the Clinton bill in the House, Mr. Breaux cast himself as a "mediator" between liberals and conservatives.
"He's the bridge to all the Democrats," a senior White House official said of Mr. Breaux, who succeeded Mr. Clinton as chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
In fact, Mr. Breaux has become almost a crutch for the tottering Clinton White House, where both the president and Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty are his long-time friends.
Mr. Breaux considers his own fate closely tied to Mr. Clinton's because he worked so hard last year to convince Louisiana to support the former Arkansas governor.
After Mr. Breaux declined to join Mr. Boren and his Louisiana colleague, Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, in their open rebellion, the White House agreed to support an exemption from the Btu tax for exports that require a lot of energy to make. That would cover 25 percent of the petrochemical products made in Louisiana.
When Mr. Clinton was desperate to pick up votes from conservatives in the House during last week's close vote on the tax bill, Mr. Breaux was told to pass on to wavering House members that the president would back off on the Btu tax. Instead of raising $72 billion, Mr. Clinton is willing to accept perhaps one-third less -- as Mr. Breaux has proposed.
The senator conveyed that message just before the House vote in a conference call to Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana, Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma and Rep. Jim Chapman of Texas -- all of whom were critical Democratic swing votes for a bill that passed with only a handful to spare.
And now, Mr. Breaux says, he's got another tiny little favor to ask.
He wants the tax bill to include incentives for offshore oil exploration, which he says would boost an industry he says has dried up because of the high cost.
The senator says the new break wouldn't lose any revenue from the $500 billion deficit reduction package. Just a share of the new tax money that would come in.