WASHINGTON — Washington.--The 1831 rebellion of the black preacher-slave Nat Turner may turn out to be trifling compared with the current black uprising in Congress.
Three dozen embarrassed, outraged members of the Capitol Hill plantation are standing up to House leaders, and especially President Clinton, with unprecedented vigor. They could block passage of any economic recovery-deficit reduction legislation that survives Clinton compromises with Republicans and conservative Democrats.
Thus a black revolt may determine how aged retirees, the working poor, children living in poverty, middle-class taxpayers and businessmen who thrive or perish according to transportation, are going to fare under a new budget.
This represents a remarkable change in minority empowerment in America. As far back as the Truman-Dewey contest in 1948 and the Kennedy-Nixon tussle of 1961, black voters have had the muscle to affect the outcome of presidential elections. But until now blacks have not had enough representation in Congress to say to a president or a speaker, ''NO! We will not let you do this.''
The recent elections produced a 50 percent increase in the membership of the Congressional Black Caucus -- one senator and 38 House Democrats. (A black Republican is expected to resign from the caucus.) All voting black members of the House supported the Clinton budget proposals when they squeaked through recently by only 6 votes. But now these blacks are threatening to withhold support when a House-Senate version comes back to the House for final approval. House leaders concede that without black support the measure will not pass.
There is lingering fury within the Black Caucus over President Clinton's abrupt abandonment of Lani Guinier, his nominee to head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Many black lawmakers accuse Mr. Clinton of a cowardly humiliation of a black woman. But the importance of this black rebellion goes far beyond Ms. Guinier or even black people as a whole.
These black members of Congress are profoundly worried by President Clinton's retreats from ''change'' into compromises that mean business as usual. They see him now trying to reduce deficits by burdening the aged, the poor, the hungry, the most vulnerable people in America.
Black Caucus members see Mr. Clinton bowing to the forces of greed that have had a 12-year gravy train that he vowed to stop in its tracks. The president in whom they placed so much hope is yielding to oil-state senators such as David Boren of Oklahoma and John Breaux of Louisiana in dropping the Btu energy tax. This reasonably fair levy would have raised $72 billion over five years. Senator Breaux wants to replace this with a $40 billion tax on gasoline and other transportation fuels plus another $30 billion in Medicare cuts -- a scheme that would be grossly unfair to poor and middle-class citizens.
Cynics say the black lawmakers will cave in because ''they don't have anywhere else to go.'' But people who hold the power to deliver victory or defeat for Mr. Clinton can go as they please. The Black Caucus has seen that Republicans and conservative Democrats get what they want by taking hard lines before delivering their votes.
It will be fascinating to see whether the blacks in Congress really have the guts of a Nat Turner, or whether their rebellion is just a flush of spring fever.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.