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NEWS ANALYSIS : House Verdict on Clinton: It's a Yes ... But : Politics: Razor-thin victory presages rough road ahead for President's agenda. Rostenkowski comes through in pinch, delivers crucial 'aye' votes.

May 28, 1993|JOHN M. BRODER and KAREN TUMULTY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — It was an impressive display of legislative log-rolling, a combination of political finesse and brute force that kept President Clinton's ambitious deficit-reduction plan alive for another day.

But Clinton's razor-thin six-vote victory in the Democrat-dominated House presages the difficulty he faces in selling his budget plan, as well as his larger reform agenda.

The President must now take his bitter tonic of tax hikes and spending cuts to the more independent Senate--and to a public grown dubious not only about the Clinton program but also about the President himself.

It is no exaggeration to call Thursday's House action an early confidence vote for the Clinton presidency. The result was a resounding "Yes . . . But."

The President's $496-billion package of tax increases and spending restraints was nearly stopped in its tracks by moderate Democrats who endorse the objective of deficit reduction but want to achieve it with fewer tax hikes and more spending cuts.

The outcome was in doubt late Thursday afternoon when veteran House leader Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) drove to the White House to tell Clinton that while he was still three votes short of a majority, he'd be able to deliver them by nightfall.

He did. Barely.

The House vote was 219 to 213 for the plan--217 votes were needed for passage.

Clinton managed to keep his program moving by making minor--some would say insignificant--concessions that won him just enough swing votes to secure passage. But in so doing, he avoided dealing directly with the fundamental concerns still harbored by many Americans about his political and economic priorities.

Conservative political analyst Kevin Phillips said Thursday that Clinton's victory on the tax bill may prove worse for him than a loss.

"He has the worst of both worlds--he's seen as floundering to get it through, which draws attention to his weakness, and then he's got the bill itself, which turns a lot of people off because they already think he's a taxaholic," Phillips said.

House members were painfully aware that the nation was watching to see whether the Democrats, after 12 years in the wilderness, were ready to govern. Failure now, several warned, would mean another one-term presidency.

"For the last 10 years Democrats in Congress have been on the attack. We were the opposition. Now we're the party of policy and leadership," said Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.). "Now, we're the same team, and that's taking some adjustment."

Added Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.): "It's one of the consequences of the changeover from divided government. Now, there's someone to blame. Us."

However difficult it was in the House, which with an 80-member Democratic majority ought to be the Administration's home court, it promises to be far worse in the Senate.

The first hurdle, next month, will be in the Senate Finance Committee, which has a slim 11-9 Democratic majority, and where Republicans have already issued notice that they will unanimously oppose it.

One Democratic committee member, Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma, has said he plans to vote against the package unless it is drastically restructured, incorporating more spending cuts and eliminating the $71-billion energy tax approved by the House.

"It's a terrible mistake to have even pushed it through the House like this," Boren said in an interview Thursday. "I'm prepared, if I have to, to keep it from coming out of the finance committee."

Clinton admitted Thursday morning in a televised town meeting that he had done "a lousy job" of explaining his vision to Congress and the American people, and he vowed to work harder to promote his plan.

"I'll tell you what went wrong," Clinton said in a two-hour Rose Garden session with a group of questioners recruited by CBS. "What went wrong was I was not able to keep the public focus on the issues that we're working on after I gave the State of the Union address, even though that's what we kept doing."

He confessed that he didn't like the gritty partisanship of politics, a remarkable admission of naivete in a man who has devoted his entire adult life to the game.

"I hate all this," the President said. "I mean, you know, I didn't run for President to get up and fight with the Republicans every day."

But it wasn't the Republicans that almost brought him to grief this week. It was his own fractious party and his own propensity for self-inflicted wounds.

Weakened by a series of gaffes, including an air traffic-stopping haircut and the botched firings of the White House travel staff, Clinton approached the most critical vote of his young Administration in a swirl of distractions.

But Clinton, with the crucial aid of the House leadership, was able to corral just enough votes to move his program forward.

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