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Clinton Tries to Give a Lift to Deficit Plan : Budget: He appears less than enthusiastic in calling for support of his pared-down package. Officials say agreement may be reached today.


WASHINGTON — As negotiations over the Administration's deficit-reduction package moved close to a weary denouement Wednesday, President Clinton urged support for his plan, saying that it "does far more good than harm."

The somewhat faint praise reflected, perhaps more than Clinton intended, a process that over the course of several months has ground down both the substance of the package and most of the key officials working on it.

That process now appears to be moving into its final stages--key members of Congress and White House officials said that a final agreement between House and Senate negotiators could be reached as early as today, although none would be surprised to see talks on the final details stretch out over the weekend.

As the process has wended its way, the Administration's once high hopes of producing a budget that would stand as a monument to "change" have faded and the President and his aides more and more have reconciled themselves to the bittersweet feeling of having gained half a loaf.

Clinton did little to hide those mixed feelings as he spoke with reporters after a luncheon with 60 corporate executives who endorsed his plan.

On the one hand, he posed the choice now before Congress in stark terms, saying that he and his supporters were committed to "the health of the American economy over continued political rhetoric, to productivity over politics, to action over gridlock."

But he sounded far less energized when asked about the package's energy tax, which is the budget's most controversial item--just as it has been since Clinton first unveiled his plan in February.

Negotiators appear headed toward a tax increase of about a nickel a gallon on gasoline, perhaps as much as six cents, perhaps somewhat less. "It will not promote a great deal of energy conservation, it has very little environmental significance," said Clinton, whose original energy tax was considerably larger. But finding an alternative "becomes an arithmetic problem at some point."

Members of Congress--like the public at large--may not be thrilled by the plan, he conceded, but they are "going to have to make up their minds whether the consequences of voting no for the country are graver than the consequences of voting yes. If that's the question, they'll all vote yes."

While Clinton and the Democrats slogged away in support of the budget, Republicans, who called a press conference to denounce the bill, seemed to take joy in their freedom to attack it.

Clinton's endless efforts to sell his plan resembled the acts of a high school "nerd trying to get a prom date with the homecoming queen," gibed Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio).

"This Administration is the 'Coneheads' of the '90's, eating large amounts of America's standard of living," quipped Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

Clinton has not yet reached the level of denial experienced by then-President George Bush when he proposed a budget package in the fall of 1990 and disavowed it almost simultaneously with the unveiling. But the tepid nature of Clinton's public comments reflects a basic reality that Bush faced as well--the steps needed to curb the deficit offer a politician large amounts of pain and little prospect of immediate gain. And even the pain comes only after excruciatingly drawn out--and often seemingly meaningless--negotiations.

As those negotiations continued Wednesday, the question of how much to increase the gasoline tax--now 14.1 cents per gallon--continued to stall a final deal. Senate conferees rejected a House proposal for a phased-in, nine-cent increase in the fuel levy, standing by the 4.3-cent rise contained in the Senate bill.

Even as they haggled, members of Congress kept up a drumbeat of doubts and expressions of shaky support for a budget compromise.

"Every senator's disdain for individual sections of the bill . . . is outweighed only by their horror over the political disaster that would ensue if no bill is passed," one Senate aide said.

In the House, Democrats who caucused again Wednesday on the budget measure indicated stronger support for a bill emerging from conference than did their Senate counterparts. But House demands for more tax breaks for working-poor families and incentives for business investment in designated "empowerment zones" in depressed urban areas also were unresolved, congressional sources said.

"We're still dealing with the gripes," one House aide said. "But there were a lot of members who wanted to get to a vote and do something rather than go home empty-handed."

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