Courage has been lacking in budget negotiations ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

August 05, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- When Sen. John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize in history for "Profiles in Courage," his short book on earlier senators who took unpopular stands, it gave rise to jokes about how most of the contemporary crop had "too much profile and not enough courage."

That gag comes to mind in the frantic activity by President Clinton to find the one vote to assure Senate passage of his deficit-reduction package -- and in the equally frantic effort of some senators to extract a price for their support.

The spectacle has not been one of the Senate's more ennobling moments, nor of the White House's either. Clinton and his Cabinet members have been obliged to lobby recalcitrant senators in the fashion of supplicants, offering this or that concession to local wish lists or fears of local voter backlash.

Democratic members of the House and Senate have not been bashful about putting the squeeze on the president of their own party for trims in the package to make it easier for their constituents to swallow. This is especially the case involving those legislators up for re-election next year.

The most spotlighted individual has been Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, whose re-election is clearly in jeopardy as a result of his involvement in the Charles Keating savings and loan scandal. In a conspicuous exercise in public stroking to go along with what had been done privately, Clinton in his televised appeal for support of the package specifically lauded DeConcini for pressing for creation of a trust fund into which all new taxes are to go explicitly for deficit reduction.

Citing Republican parliamentary maneuvers "to block Senator DeConcini's amendment" to create such a trust fund, Clinton pledged to sign an executive order the next day establishing it "so that you will know the money must be spent on deficit reduction." He promptly did so.

The "you" to which the president referred was not only his general television audience but pointedly DeConcini himself and the voters of Arizona. Clinton also agreed to reduce the proposed new hit on Social Security recipients. In a state that is a mecca for the elderly, the senator also feared their wrath.

Although Clinton has been widely criticized for not twisting Democratic congressional arms strenuously enough for his deficit-reduction package, this very conspicuous bow to DeConcini was hardball of another sort. Clinton was clearly indicating that if he was dealt a defeat on this centerpiece legislation, DeConcini would have to accept a good share of the blame, after the president of his own party went out of his way to accommodate him.

As for DeConcini, who finally agreed to back the Clinton plan, it is embarrassingly obvious that saving his own political skin has been paramount in his deliberations, for all the insistence that he truly questioned whether the Clinton package as revised in House-Senate conference was good for the country.

The use of the Oval Office to grant favors and concessions is an old practice that is part of the game in Washington. Still, on a piece of legislation on which the new president's ability to govern effectively may very well ride, the way DeConcini and other Democrats in Congress have jerked him around is not only a commentary on Clinton's perceived weakness but also on these Democrats' own limited concern for their party's image.

That the issue of deficit reduction has been politicized into a challenge to the president's leadership can clearly be seen in the solid front that the Senate Republicans, behind minority leader Bob Dole, constructed to defeat the package.

In earlier times, such a show of Republican solidarity might have been expected to generate a similar closing of ranks among the Democrats. As Senate party leader and later president, Lyndon Johnson whipped his party into line by a combination of hard persuasion and political threats. Clinton by contrast has used soft persuasion and, apparently, no threats at all.

While the latter approach demonstrated respect for the independence of the legislators, it risked being interpreted as weakness. This has been a Clinton problem from the start, and the DeConcinis, no profiles in courage themselves, have made the most of it.

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