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With Senate Budget Debate, Political Universe Expands : Politics: Since Clinton took office, the focus of power in Washington has been the White House. But now the power center is widening.

June 27, 1993|Suzanne Garment | Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)

WASHINGTON — The official pronouncers decreed that President Bill Clinton finally had a Good Week last week, capped by the passage of his budget in the Senate. But more interesting than this cheery news about the President is the fact that much of the news these days is not about the President at all. For the moment, attention has shifted away from the White House. This change in focus is not only a relief to news consumers everywhere but probably a favor to Clinton himself.

The pronouncers are not wrong when they say the President is looking much less green around the gills. His Supreme Court nominee, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is getting sensational press. Versions of the President's national service and campaign-reform plans are moving through Congress. In the Senate Finance Committee, Chairman Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) actually managed to get the unanimous Democratic vote he needed to pass the Clinton budget. And the entire Senate approved the budget by a razor-thin 50-49 vote early Friday morning.

In fact, Moynihan, not Clinton, has been the leading Democrat in the budget drama. Analysts seem surprised that such a "quirky," "fey" professorial figure could succeed so well at holding the Democrats in line. But Moynihan was in training a long time for the job.

When Moynihan taught at Harvard, some faculty members thought his political background made him a less-than-genuine professor. When he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, State Department diplomats insisted he would never be a real, honest-to-God ambassador. He proved them all wrong. When he ran for the Senate, the politicos said he would never last as a real candidate. But he and his wife, Liz, dragged themselves through a campaign that, in its early phases, was a living nightmare.

Then they said Moynihan would never be a real, honest-to-God senator. Four elections later, They just knew he could not make tough deals like a true finance committee chairman. But, of course, he could: He had years of practice in learning to do whatever a new job in government required.

When the budget moved onto the Senate floor last week, the most compelling figure in the contest became Republican Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. If Moynihan earned his stripes by slogging through one government rice paddy after another, Dole got his in a tougher arena. He is, by common agreement, one of the senators you would least like to have on the opposite side in a political battle.

That fear stems not just from Dole's aggressiveness as an adversary but from knowledge of where that aggression comes from. It is impossible to look at him, with his stiff arm crooked close against his chest, without remembering how massively his body was shattered during World War II and how awe-inspiring, almost unimaginable, was the physical and mental effort by which he made himself a functioning human being again. This is a man who fears nothing that a mere political opponent can dish out. He has, in a different sense from Moynihan's, run the gamut of experience and emerged a large man.

Dole and Moynihan are years older than the President, and those particular years divide the generations in U.S. politics. The two senators were adults when President John F. Kennedy was killed, while Clinton was a boy who had, not long before, shaken Kennedy's hand in the Rose Garden. Clinton's life looks simple when compared with the complexity of Dole's or Moynihan's career and temperament.

The two men and their fellow senators have given us a good budget fight. The White House has been reduced to playing a supporting role, hoping only to get some budget--any budget--through the Senate so that it can try to exercise more influence in the conference between Senate and House. The debate has been a highly public, extremely partisan one; the Democratic version of the budget was bound to pass, but both sides know they are struggling in the broader arena of U.S. public opinion over the larger question of which party is more fit to govern.

Dole, for his part, has tackled the issue as he might have been expected to do. He championed deficit reduction before Clinton was politically sentient and retained a stubborn concern for deficit reduction even in the heyday of the devil-may-care GOP supply-siders. Dole is barred by current Republican strategy from acquiescing to either Clinton's tax increases or a raid on the Pentagon. The only solution is broad spending cuts--which the Republican budget plan did propose.

Moynihan's performance was more complicated. He is no enthusiast for taxes and he knows better than most the perils of entrusting large spending decisions to government. But he also knows how uncertain the effects of any government action are--whether it is a new tax or a new social program.

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