Vote in favor of budget may doom some congressmen


August 07, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot stalked the halls of Congress this week, just a quiet little reminder to lawmakers that he will not be ignored.

With his briefcase, his just-folks style, and a core group of supporters who represent the swing vote to many House and Senate Democrats facing re-election next year, he urged members of Congress to vote down the president's budget plan.

Or face the consequences.

Mr. Perot has used the budget as his latest weapon against President Clinton and also as a sword to hold over the heads of lawmakers on their way to the 1994 elections. But if the ghost of Mr. Perot lurked on the House and Senate floors this week as members cast their vote on the economic plan, it also lurked, ironically, in the broadest outline of the very plan he's been attacking.

"Clearly, his shadow is looming over this package," says Stanley Collender, director of federal budget policy for Price Waterhouse.

The whole concept of deficit reduction came to the fore largely because of Mr. Perot's preoccupation with it as the mercurial independent candidate in last year's presidential race, say economists and strategists. Seeing that the issue struck a chord with voters, Mr. Clinton then started talking about deficit reduction as much as he did about job creation and stimulus.

'The issue'

"[Mr. Perot] not only made it an issue, he made it the issue," says Mr. Collender.

As a result, Mr. Clinton came into office more prepared and more committed to dealing with the deficit this year, as did many members of Congress who were elected on deficit reduction platforms, he added.

To a smaller extent, Mr. Perot also paved the way for unpopular steps, such as the gasoline tax. (As a presidential candidate, the Texas billionaire called for an unrealistic 50-cent-a-gallon tax increase over five years, but nonetheless has criticized the bill's 4.3-cent a gallon rise as a burden to the middle class.)

But few other Perot details -- and, indeed, they have changed several times over the last year -- have been adopted in the Clinton plan. "If there's a voice of Ross Perot in this package, I can't hear it," says Frank Luntz, a former Perot pollster who is now a prime critic.

But bashing the economic package as he did on TV talk shows and at his "United We Stand, America" rallies through the spring and summer, Mr. Perot added fuel to Republican fires and made it more acceptable even for Democrats to oppose the plan.

The businessman who attracted 19 percent of the presidential vote also has hinted not so subtly that he will mobilize his supporters to unseat any lawmaker who voted for the package.

Explicit threat

"These folks are going to get it right this time or get it right next time," he said at a mid-July rally in Tucson, Ariz., referring to next year's congressional elections. "Our group is big enough to be the swing vote and decide who wins."

Last week, when it appeared the president's package stood a good chance of passing, he told the Dallas Morning News, "We'll get it done next year. I'd say the guys that vote for it will probably be out of luck."

Who's afraid of such threats?

"Every senator and member of Congress who has a fear about re-election -- and that's 535 of them -- is very much worried about the Perot voter and Perot's promise to take them on," says Melissa Line, director of the Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. "They're enormously afraid of him."

Mr. Luntz agrees, saying, "They should be afraid of him. I don't know if he can elect, but he can defeat . . . I would not want to be a Democrat facing re-election in a state where Perot got more than 15 percent [of the presidential vote]."

Indeed, two of the three Senate Democrats up for re-election who initially voted against the economic plan come from states with large Perot constituencies.

In Nevada, Mr. Perot won 26 percent of the vote last year, and in Arizona, he brought in 24 percent.

Gained swing vote

"That's the swing vote," says Mr. Luntz, who believes Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini, facing an uphill re-election battle next year, "signed his death certificate" by voting "yes" to the budget yesterday.

"The Perovians will combine with the Republicans and defeat him," the GOP pollster predicts.

So far, however, Mr. Perot and his organization have not demonstrated any capacity to influence elections. Their only quasi-endorsement to date has gone to GOP Senate candidate Kay Bailey Hutchison in Texas, but only after she was considered a shoo-in.

(Technically, United We Stand cannot endorse candidates or engage in partisan political activity since it has applied for tax-exempt status as a non-profit educational group.)

"I'm very skeptical that they have the sophistication or the inclination to impact on specific races," says Charles E. Cook, Jr., editor of the Cook Political Report, a non-partisan report on electoral politics.

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