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NEWS ANALYSIS : Democrats Fear How Far Clinton Will Bend on GOP Budget : After a White House meeting, some party leaders worry that President's 'triangulation' leaves them out of the loop.


WASHINGTON — A recent White House gathering of Democratic lawmakers, all on the front lines of the budget battle raging in Congress, was intended as a sort of pep rally. But that did not stop New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel from asking President Clinton a tough question: "Are we all singing from the same sheet of music?"

Clinton's equivocal response, as recalled by one of his listeners, underlined the tensions and uncertainty clouding relations between Clinton and congressional Democrats. "We should stick together as long as we can," the President reportedly said. "But there may come a time when we disagree."

Judging from the recent rise in his poll ratings, such swivel-hipped rhetoric has been serving the President well, helping him carry out his newly adopted strategy of "triangulation"--charting a course for his reelection by keeping his political distance from both the Republicans and the members of his own party on Capitol Hill.

But the approaching budget showdown presents that design for presidential survival with its severest test yet, a challenge in which Clinton's chances of success may depend on the connivance of one of the most implausible allies imaginable, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

And the outcome of the clash is likely to define not only the rest of Clinton's presidency but also the future of the Democratic Party, still struggling to find a new identity in an age of skepticism about the government activism that long has been its hallmark.

In the budget negotiations, Clinton will be under pressure to make concessions to the Republican majority on cutting federal spending and taxes--moves that presumably would bolster his appeal to middle-class voters. But for congressional Democrats, the possibility that Clinton could find common cause with Gingrich--the leader of the GOP's conservative revolution--is especially alarming.

Such an alliance would be founded on perceived mutual interest. Although Gingrich threatened last week to prolong the budget battle for a year, some analysts believe the Speaker could well conclude that his own long-term political advantage is served by hammering out a fiscal accord that Clinton could accept without serious loss of face.

"The Republicans in Congress, at least their leaders, have every bit as much interest in having Clinton succeed as Clinton does himself," contends Norman Ornstein, congressional affairs specialist at Washington's American Enterprise Institute.

But if Clinton gives up too much to the GOP, he risks alienating key Democratic constituencies and the legislators who represent them.

"If he . . . goes with the Republicans and then comes to my district where I win by 75%, even if I endorse him my people might not go to him," said Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state, one of the 10 or so Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee who participated in the recent session with Clinton. "They could look at him and say, 'Bah, we might as well have [Senate Majority Leader Bob] Dole' " as President.


Some of the Democratic lawmakers at the meeting in the White House Cabinet Room left wanting to accept Clinton's qualified professions of support. Rangel said the session convinced him that Clinton would not leave his fellow party leaders "hung out to dry" if and when he cuts a budget deal with the GOP.

But Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward) said: "My sense is that we came out of there without him promising much of anything."

Others brooded about the influence of Richard Morris, the aide credited or blamed with devising the triangulation strategy.

"I worry that this consultant has told him, 'Cut [congressional Democrats] loose and let them sink in deep water,' " said McDermott. "I don't know whether the President has really bought that as a plan or not, but all through the budget machinations there have been moments of concern."

Still fresh and bitter for many Democrats are memories of the first demonstration of triangulation in action--Clinton's abrupt decision in June to announce his own plan for balancing the budget, without so much of a word of warning to his party's House and Senate leaders.

"You didn't send any flowers, you didn't write any letters, you didn't even blow a kiss--you just up and left," Rangel said as the President and his guests sipped coffee during their meeting.

Clinton's aides claim the significance of that gambit will be overshadowed by the result of the budget debate. "I think the Democratic Party is going to be defined in terms of where the money goes and where the spending cuts are made this fall, not the fact that the President came out for a balanced budget in June," said one senior White House official.

But that is just the point that troubled many of those Democrats in the Cabinet Room. Indeed, the forces that could shape the world's oldest political party would likely bewilder the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who founded it two centuries ago and whose portrait looked down on the White House parley.

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