WASHINGTON — President Clinton seemed to enter office with all the makings of a blissful marriage with Congress: healthy Democratic majorities in both houses, a Cabinet and senior staff of respected Capitol Hill veterans and, perhaps most importantly, enormous public yearning for action.
That was four months ago. Now, if Clinton and Congress were husband and wife, they'd be headed for the counselor's office.
Can this marriage be saved?
The President's biggest challenge now is to restore confidence on Capitol Hill--both in the fundamentals of his program and in his own ability to muscle it through.
On both counts, Democrats in Congress were badly shaken by the legislative fiasco over what is now widely regarded as an ill-conceived plan to help revive the economy with a $16.3-billion spending bill.
Now he is asking them to take even bigger gambles, risking their political futures on his belief that such unpopular measures as higher taxes and sharp spending cuts will restore the nation's economy.
If Clinton succeeds in restoring Congress' faith in him, the stumbles of the past few weeks will be written off to experience. If he fails, he could find it impossible to muster the votes he will need to carry out the remainder of his ambitious program, including his sweeping plan to revolutionize the nation's health care system.
Whether Clinton can regain his footing is likely to become clear over the next few weeks as the President struggles to save his economic blueprint from attacks by his own party in Congress.
In the latest challenge, Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), the author of a competing economic proposal, has publicly threatened to use his critical vote on the Senate Finance Committee to sink Clinton's energy tax, which would be based on BTU values of various forms of energy.
And that's just the beginning. "It's clear to me that his BTU tax is in big, big trouble, campaign finance reform is probably also in big trouble, and some of his nominations could be in trouble. Everybody's for health care reform, but no one can agree on whose health care plan they are for," said Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.). "More and more of the senators I talk to are expressing reservations about the President's programs."
With Senate passage of the economic program in jeopardy, House members--whose support had been considered a virtual certainty--are suddenly having second thoughts about going on record in favor of controversial measures that ultimately may be doomed anyway.
That, after all, was precisely what they did on the economic stimulus bill, only to see it go down in flames during an unanticipated Republican filibuster in the Senate.
For many members of Congress, "it's extremely difficult to support a BTU tax in the first place. To do so when they know it is dead in the Senate is impossible," said Rep. Jim Slattery (D-Kan.).
Some have argued that Clinton must get tougher and force the recalcitrant Senate into line. Others have insisted with equal force that Clinton's problem is in failing to adequately consult, coddle and stroke key lawmakers.
"We're paying attention," said chief White House lobbyist Howard Paster. "But we have a fascinating dilemma. If we fail to respond to their concerns, we are accused of being intransigent and politically naive. If we respond, we are accused of compromising too quickly and dealing too fast."
Yet there is one thing on which all sides agree: Nothing will work unless Congress is convinced that voters will support Clinton and his program. "There's only one salesman in an Administration. That's the President of the United States. He has to sell and he has to stay focused," said Tony Coelho, a former California congressman and member of the House Democratic leadership.
Clinton and his top advisers constantly remind Democratic lawmakers that he and they will ultimately be judged as one and that what they are facing is a test of whether their party can govern.
But not everyone on Capitol Hill sees it quite that way. "There are a lot of people here who hope to be members of Congress when Bill Clinton is in retirement," said Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.), who has served under five presidents. "There's this notion that somehow or another we're all in this boat together . . . but we owe our responsibility to the people who elected us.
"This is not Little Rock, and we are not the Arkansas Legislature," he added.
Though the former Arkansas governor campaigned as a Washington outsider, most believed he would not fall victim to the traps that doomed the relationship between Congress and Jimmy Carter, the last Southern Democratic governor who swept into town on a mandate for change.
For starters, Clinton had longstanding personal friendships and political alliances with many of the party's up-and-coming stars in Congress. As it turns out, these are many of the same people who are giving him the most trouble now.