Devastating defeat for the Democrats in the Texas Senate race is just the latest bad news for star-crossed President Clinton. It lowers his majority to six votes in the 100-member Senate, not much of a margin in a chamber that has already killed his jobs-stimulus bill. And it forces him to give more ground on his embattled economics package just as the House Black Caucus has had enough of liberal retreat after the Lani Guinier fiasco.
Clearly, the administration is in peril. It is one thing to lose a minor $16 billion spending bill or an assistant attorney general. It is something of much different magnitude if the White House fails to get a budget reconciliation bill out of the Senate that really restrains the growth of future deficits. A setback here would undercut health care reform, the other centerpiece of the Clinton program.
At the moment, the stars are not in favorable alignment for Mr. Clinton. Emboldened by the defeat of Democratic Sen. Bob Krueger by Republican challenger Kay Bailey Hutchison in Texas, GOP senators are screaming against new taxes. While the White House negotiates with loyal Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, Republican Senate leader Bob Dole plots strategy with Democratic Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma, an outspoken foe of the president's energy tax proposal.
These developments cast a baleful light on Mr. Clinton's early decision to take Senate Finance committee chairman Lloyd Bentsen out of his key slot and make him Treasury secretary. While Mr. Bentsen has been a voice of reason in the Cabinet, he would have been one more Democratic vote and a more savvy committee chairman than Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The other misstep was to propose two dollars in new taxes for every dollar in federal spending cuts. The result has been steady and humiliating retreat, with Senator Moynihan now publicly willing to settle for a one-to-one ratio. The administration is conceding a reduction of as much as one third in the $71 billion energy tax and Senator Moynihan is calling for $51 billion in added spending cuts, chiefly by crimping Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals.
What may be acceptable to the Senate Finance Committee, however, may no longer be tolerable to the 40-vote House Black Caucus. Incensed by Mr. Clinton's "betrayal" of Ms. Guinier, caucus chairman Rep. Kweise Mfume of Baltimore has proclaimed resistance to any more cuts in government benefits programs. This puts new pressure from the left on the president as he battles pressure from the right after the Texas election.
It is time for Mr. Clinton to stand up against tormentors from either end of the political spectrum. He now should go for real deficit reduction -- the kind that could balance the budget by century's end -- by sticking with the bulk of his energy taxes while agreeing to more cuts in entitlement spending. This would not be popular but it surely would be presidential, an adjective not associated of late with the man in the Oval Office.