Congressmen are learning it pays to defy president



WASHINGTON -- For any political leader there is a fine line between being willing to compromise and being susceptible to being "rolled" by your opponents. There is a spreading sense in the political community that President Clinton is in the second group -- that he is being pushed around repeatedly.

The perception is politically significant because it has much to do with the president's troubles in getting his economic package approved and, unless reversed, could make it impossible for him to pass a meaningful health care reform plan or anything else later on.

The suspicion that Mr. Clinton could be rolled, a favored phrase of political professionals, began to develop during the transition last winter, when the president-elect began to reverse himself on some of his campaign promises in the face of opposition and when he went to such extraordinary lengths to provide the "diversity" he believed essential in his Cabinet.

If there was a single example that caught the eye of politicians then, it was Clinton's decision to abandon his choice of Chicago Democrat William Daley for secretary of transportation because of protests from Hispanic-Americans that they needed more representation in the Cabinet. The job went to Federico Pena, the former mayor of Denver.

And, if there was a single event that crystallized those suspicions recently, it was the president's decision to throw in the towel on Lani Guinier, his original choice to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

The result -- and this is what is menacing to the president -- is that those in Congress and elsewhere who disagree with him now see many of his decisions as a product of that weakness.

Thus, for example, black Democrats in the House are not reacting only against the decision by Clinton to drop the Btu tax they swallowed so reluctantly but also against what they see as Clinton allowing himself to be rolled by Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma and then by Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, both Oil Patch Democrats looking out for their constituents.

To no one's surprise, the notion that defiance pays off has begun to spread. The plan to replace the original energy tax with higher taxes on transportation has evoked a totally predictable response from Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, a state where long drives are the rule rather than exception.

And the companion plan to compensate for a reduction in tax increases by further cuts in Medicare and Medicaid has drawn quick opposition from such Senate liberals as John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Don Riegle of Michigan as well as organizations of retirees.

It is obvious, moreover, that these dissenters have been encouraged by the successes of those who already have rolled the president. Although quick to excuse Clinton from the blame for the budget deadlock, Rockefeller complained, "David Boren and Kerr-McGee [a leading energy firm] have been running the Congress for a month and a half."

Nor have the examples been lost on those liberal House Democrats. Watching Boren and Breaux, they learn the lesson that defiance pays off. So the message they are sending to the White House is that the president must not give away the store in the Senate if he expects their critical votes when the final version of the budget comes back to the House. At another time, the refusal by the Congressional Black Caucus to meet with their president this week would be stunning.

No one who understands how Washington works would expect the new president to draw a line in the sand over every issue. As Clinton keeps justifiably reminding everyone, he is asking Congress to make some hard decisions and asking the voters to accept them. He is in no position to insist that his party accept every particular of his proposals. And successful presidents always have to be willing to compromise. Even presidents in apparently unassailable political positions -- Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan in their first terms -- have faced that reality.

It is equally true, however, that presidents must demonstrate leadership and perhaps, on occasion, a steel edge -- Democrats who defied Lyndon Johnson sometimes wondered if he would burn their barns. The alternative is a reputation such as the one Bill Clinton is earning now as a president who can be rolled.

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