Clinton sees political reality in fight over balanced budget


WASHINGTON -- The Republicans have been saying all along that President Clinton rose from the politically dead last year by seizing all their issues.

Thus, it was no great surprise when the president suddenly confided the other day that he could live with a balanced budget amendment so long as there was an escape hatch "that gives the country what it needs to manage a recession."

Just a day later, however, the president rowed back to his position against such an amendment.

Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin said the administration would "actively oppose" the conservative proposal and quoted Mr. Clinton as telling his economic advisers he was still adamantly opposed.

"He said, 'absolutely,'" Mr. Rubin reported. "The bottom line is that he is opposed to a balanced budget amendment and remains so."

Press Secretary Michael McMurry then confirmed that Mr. Rubin was speaking for the president.

President Clinton's earlier comments, he explained, were simply recognition of the political reality that the Republican-controlled Congress is likely to approve such an amendment, particularly with the addition of more conservative votes in the Senate, where it failed by a single vote last year.

Everybody got that?

But the real bottom line, contrary to Secretary Rubin, seems to be that the president is unwilling to go to the wall to prevent the amendment's passage.

The problem here, of course, is that the president's mixed signals on the question serve to cut the legs from under liberal Democrats in Congress who have been prepared to fight the good fight against the amendment until the bitter end.

These Democrats, particularly in the House of Representatives, recognize that the amendment is a politically popular gimmick.

So now they have to ask themselves if it is worth walking the plank to oppose it while the White House has been making conciliatory noises.

Mr. Clinton is notorious for trying to find common ground on issues that cause sharp and clear divisions in American politics.

Shortly after the Democratic defeat in the congressional

elections of 1994, for example, he suggested there might be a way to write an amendment permitting prayer in the public schools.

Jewish voters

And he did so despite the fact that Jewish voters, the group most determined in their opposition to prayer in the schools, had just given 85 percent of their votes to Democratic candidates for the House and Senate.

The balanced budget amendment is one of those things that sounds so logical until closely examined.

And the tougher it is, the more the conservatives seem to like it.

The idea of writing such a stricture and still retaining any 'N flexibility in confronting changing economic conditions -- by deficit financing in time of recession -- is far-fetched.

As Mr. Rubin put it, "The problem is that you are trying to protect against everything you can see, and against the unforeseen. And you can't protect against the unforeseen. It seems to me extremely unlikely you can draft something that will give you an effective escape hatch."

As a technical matter, the president has no role in the decision on the question. Proposed amendments don't require his signature, only the approval of Congress and then three-fourths of the states.

But as the leader of the nation and of his party, President Clinton has a role to play in trying to influence that decision.

At the very least, his strong opposition to an amendment would offer some cover, however scant, for Democrats in Congress also opposing it.

And although passage of an amendment now appears likely, it is possible that a prolonged national debate over the issue might change public opinion -- meaning that more voters might get wise to the fact that the amendment is a feel-good gimmick rather than a solution to budget problems or sound public policy.

Liberal element

Liberals may not be an essential element of a winning coalition in a presidential election.

But they are an element of the Democratic Party that a Democratic president cannot ignore.

And Bill Clinton keeps sending messages -- on welfare reform last summer and the balanced budget amendment now -- that they are not a major factor in his calculations.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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