The public wants to see if Congress can govern ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- When Rep. Mike Synar returned to his district for the July 4 congressional recess he met with about 25 groups of constituents in 10 counties -- without ever hearing a word about the Btu tax.

This is passing remarkable when you realize that Democrat Synar hails from Oklahoma, an Oil Patch state also represented by Sen. David Boren, who made the scuttling of the energy tax his prime goal during the Senate deliberations on President Clinton's economic plan.

What this experience suggests to the politically acute Synar is that the voter concern about taxes is probably a lot less volatile than those of us inside the Beltway have been led to believe. The important thing, Synar says, is for Congress to demonstrate that it is capable of acting decisively.

The particulars of the bill finally produced by the House-Senate conference that opened this week may be less important than the fact of such a bill. "I don't think there's much politics in the reconciliation," says Synar. "I think we can do just about anything."

Mike Synar's experience seems to fly in the face of the opinion polls that show a steady increase in opposition to President Clinton's plan as Republicans have conducted a full-scale campaign to depict it as a reincarnation of the "tax and spend" Democratic policies of the Great Society.

But the contradiction may be more apparent than real. Opinion polls force voters to make choices, and it is no surprise that most ZTC of them don't like the idea of paying higher taxes. But that is not necessarily the same thing as saying that voters think the taxes in the Clinton plan -- roughly 50 cents a day on middle-class taxpayers -- represent an unacceptable price to pay for some hope of economic progress.

There is no denying the effectiveness of the Republicans in making their case. Their success is reflected in the fact that as the conference committee convened there were about 80 Democrats in the House arguing that any form of tax on the middle class, whether a gasoline or Btu tax, should be dropped in favor of even greater increases on corporations and those in the highest income brackets.

So the question now is whether the Democrats will let the Republicans sit out the conference process and still spook them out of doing what needs to be done. The chances run heavily against it; if there is one bit of conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill these days, it is the recognition that finding a compromise is essential for the Democratic Party as well as for President Clinton.

It is not going to be easy, however. Among the Democrats now there are what are being called "gangs of 40" -- disparate blocs of House members with their own agendas, including blacks, women, Southern and Western conservatives and traditional party liberals.

The most serious problem for the conferees may be finding a way to keep the conservatives on board while resolving the doubts of members of the Congressional Black Caucus who are concerned about such casualties of the Senate debate as the creation of "empowerment zones" that would provide economic opportunity for inner cities. Chairman Dan Rostenkowski of the House Ways and Means Committee says it is inconceivable that the needs of the disadvantaged will not get some further recognition, and Chairman Daniel P. Moynihan of the Senate Finance Committee is every bit as sympathetic to liberal concerns.

On the face of it, nonetheless, the bargaining could be tricky. The Democrats had only three votes to spare in the House and none to spare in the Senate when the original versions of the Clinton plan passed the two houses.

But the key is whether the Democrats really understand what Mike Synar learned on his vacation earlier this month -- that voters are far more concerned with seeing them demonstrate they can govern than with the particulars of the plan that is finally passed.

That was one of the lessons of the 1992 election and the surprising support for Ross Perot -- that Americans were fed up with the inability of their government to deal with serious problems in an effective way and were demanding change. That is why the outcome of the conference is, in Synar's words, "a real turning point on whether we can govern."

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