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NEWS ANALYSIS : After Budget Victory, Democrats Go on Offensive : Congress: Senate minority puts focus on something voters care more about than cutting government spending--Social Security.

March 04, 1995|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Senate Democrats' defeat of the balanced-budget amendment may indeed come back to haunt them at the polls as Republicans gleefully predict, but the strategy that worked this time could work against other elements of the GOP agenda--and might even help lift the beleaguered minority party from its defensive crouch.

What the Senate Democrats succeeded in doing for the first time since the 1994 election was to focus the debate on something voters care even more about than cutting back the federal government, in this case Social Security.

Few government programs are as sacred as pensions and medical care for America's senior citizens, of course. And in purely legislative terms, stopping a proposed constitutional amendment is easier than stopping an ordinary bill because it must pass by a two-thirds majority--an important consideration for a Democratic minority that had trouble keeping itself united and focused even when it was a majority.

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Nonetheless, Democrats may soon have other chances to score political points or even win some victories by focusing attention on the potentially unpopular specific consequences of GOP principles that--in the abstract--command public support. Already there are signs that the Republican monolith may fracture as the budget-cutting process moves from the general to the particular.

And polls show that, beyond Social Security, voters across the country are less than enthusiastic about an array of GOP-backed proposals, including cutting federal programs that benefit the middle class and in at least some cases the poor.

Even if congressional Democrats cannot overcome the GOP's numerical majority, focusing on specifics may enable them to disrupt the smooth flow of Republican programs, force changes here and there and in the process push divisions within the majority's ranks out into the open.

Moreover, the risk to Democrats of being portrayed as obstructionists likely will be outweighed by the benefits of slowing the Republican juggernaut. One lesson of the 1994 election seems to be that if voters are angry about government gridlock, they tend to blame the party in power.

"The pendulum could come back to bang us in the forehead if indeed we find ourselves not able to complete big parts of this package," conceded Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands.).

All this is only an opportunity, not a sure thing. It will not be easy for Democrats to keep future issues framed to their advantage. "We have to make sure it doesn't look like . . . we are big government spenders," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "The challenge is to make sure it doesn't look like politics as usual."

If nothing else, the balanced-budget vote has provided a big boost to sagging Democratic spirits and may embolden them to chart a stronger opposition strategy. Thursday's dramatic vote brought to an abrupt end the winning streak that Republicans have enjoyed ever since they took charge of Congress.

While the GOP whisked the line-item veto, a new crime bill and other parts of their agenda through the House, Democrats hunkered down on the sidelines, powerless to stop GOP bills or even challenge them effectively on the terms of debate.

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Initially it looked like the balanced-budget debate would be just one more issue on which Democrats would have no message but "me too." Instead, Senate Democrats mounted a challenge on the basis of the potential threat to Social Security that was strong enough to persuade six Democrats who supported the amendment last year to switch sides.

In the aftermath, Republicans delighted in suggesting that Democrats will pay a heavy price on Election Day. "There will be hell to pay," said Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

But Democrats proved willing to take the political risk. They looked beyond polls that showed broad support for a balanced-budget amendment to other polls showing equally broad opposition if the amendment affected Social Security.

What they discovered was that as long as debate focuses on the abstract anti-government principles that undergird such Republican proposals as the line-item veto or limits on federal mandates, Democrats lose. But they have a chance to win political points if not always outright victories when attention shifts to concrete programs and policies, such as cutting out food stamps or farm price supports--both of which have already stirred discord in the GOP.

"That is the model for what we have to do as we face the issues that are coming down the pike," said Mark Mellman, another Democratic pollster. "We have to change the topic of debate."

In particular, this strategy may give Democrats energy as they head into this spring's debate on spending and taxes, where they will have ample opportunity to turn attention from the abstraction of reducing the deficit to the gory specifics of cutting individual programs that have substantial constituencies.

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