WASHINGTON — A new breach is opening between President Clinton and many top House Democrats over what they see as his reluctance to throw his full weight behind efforts to retake control of their chamber in the fall elections.
House Democrats, who were warmly praising Clinton for his stand in the budget fight only days ago, turned angry with him this week for suggesting that he can have only a limited benefit in campaigning to return them to office.
These Democrats believe he has an obligation as party leader to help them even in tough-to-win districts, and that he can use his fund-raising ability to help secure the 20 seats needed to oust the Republican leadership that took over after the 1994 elections.
The White House, however, fears that too much stumping for Democrats could spread Clinton too thin, and might undermine his efforts to run as a centrist candidate in a year when he is facing a strong conservative tide, according to outside Democratic strategists.
The conflict surfaced after Clinton said Tuesday that the American people "don't think it's the president's business to tell them what ought to happen in the congressional election." The evidence that presidents can persuade voters to cast their ballots for congressional candidates is "not very heavy," Clinton told the Washington Post.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry on Wednesday sought to dispel fears that Clinton would abandon congressional allies, insisting that the president intends to campaign early and often for House members and does hope to help them win back the House. He said that Clinton would stress the principles that he supports, however, rather than the party affiliation of candidates.
"The president believes that by putting forth that kind of positive vision, and not basing everything on partisan politics . . . they will be successful and they will win," McCurry said.
In the 1994 election, Clinton raised substantial funds for Democrats, but largely stuck to his centrist agenda.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helps raise money and recruit candidates for congressional posts, said in a statement Wednesday that Clinton had been a "tremendous help" for House Democratic campaigns.
But despite those attempts to blunt Clinton's comments, a Democratic leadership aide acknowledged that they had caused "something of a stir" among some House Democrats. The aide lamented that the ever-uneasy alliance between Clinton and the House Democrats seemed again to be cooling off--after having warmed up as they joined hands in the long-running budget fight.
The aide said Clinton could close the gap again if he helps in the most important way he can--by engaging his powerful campaign machinery to raise tens of millions of dollars for Democrats.
Some Democrats in more moderate districts, on the other hand, saw Clinton's talk of nonpartisanship as a good idea.
"I saw that comment and I thought some Democrats would probably be critical of it," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento). But Matsui said that a less partisan approach by Clinton would probably help many Democrats, noting that many House candidates already adopt such a position anyway.
"The problem is not with Clinton--it's that too many House Democrats scurry away from him" in their campaigns, said Rep. Pat Williams (D-Mont.), a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee board, who retires after this term.
Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a nonpartisan political newsletter, said that he expects Clinton to campaign for at least some House Democrats--and to raise money for many as well.
Times chief Washington correspondent Jack Nelson contributed to this story.