WASHINGTON -- Suddenly, after more than a dozen years of bipartisan, unabashed deficit spending, it has become politically chic to be stingy.
Congressional Democrats, who waited all those Republican years for the chance to shape the federal budget to their own tastes, are frantically trying to outdo each other in slashing the Democratic president's budget.
On Monday, the House Budget Committee wanted to cut $55 billion over five years; by yesterday, that number had swollen to $63 billion. The Senate Budget Committee is set today to boost the cuts to $90 billion.
At the White House, President Clinton, who had already proposed paring federal spending by $223 billion through 1997, offers no more than token protests to the congressional cutting.
Whatever the final figure, he appears ready to sign on and declare victory for the process.
Many Capitol Hill veterans find the change in the political dynamic astonishing.
"I have a strange sense of a kind of deja vu, with a difference," House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said yesterday. "In 1981, there got to be a kind of a contest about who could cut taxes faster and more energetically. In 1993, it seems to be who can cut spending."
The biggest difference is that in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan inspired Congress to cut personal income taxes sharply, neither he nor the lawmakers felt any compulsion to pay for the tax cuts.
Instead, they approved huge increases in the Pentagon budget and set the federal government firmly on the path that has led to a $4 trillion debt.
But in this post-Ross Perot era, when expectations for change are high and faith in government is low, President Clinton and the congressional Democrats are bound together by a common dread of being accused of conducting business as usual.
"Fear is a part of it," said Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota. "But it's also a question of hearing the message. There is a strong desire to demonstrate that we are going to give the voters what they asked for in the last election: deficit reduction and an end to gridlock."
Even so, the cuts under consideration are so small that it is hard to imagine they would even be felt.
For fiscal 1994, the House and Senate committees want to trim about $3.5 billion from the $1.5 trillion budget. Combined with cuts Mr. Clinton has already proposed for the year, total trims would amount to less than $20 billion.
Much of the $63 billion in cuts the House is proposing over five years would come in a cap on unspecified discretionary spending that wouldn't be binding unless Congress put them into law this year.
The Senate proposal also includes the elimination of some tax breaks for the rich to reach the $90 billion in cuts over five years, but even that isn't much in a budget that is expected to total nearly $1.7 trillion by then. The deficit would still be nearly $200 billion at that point.
But the numbers themselves are less important than convincing voters that Congress is serious about slashing spending.
The Democratic lawmakers carry their own charts to town meetings now, in an imitation of the tutorial campaign style that won Mr. Perot 19 percent of the vote in his independent bid for the presidency.
They try to show how the Clinton economic plan juggles tax increases and spending cuts with new "investments" in social spending to bring about long-term economic growth and reduce the deficit by $140 billion over five years.
But many of the lawmakers report a stormy reaction from voters who say they don't want to pay new taxes until they are convinced that the government has cut spending as deeply as possible.
"There is a strong linkage between taxes and cuts," said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a freshman Democrat from North Dakota who said he was taken aback by the outcry he heard at a town meeting in Fargo two weeks ago.
Such responses already have delayed and still threaten approval of much of Mr. Clinton's $16 billion package of new spending for short-term economic stimulus.
The lawmakers put off consideration of the so-called sweeteners, such as money for new highways, summer jobs for youth and child immunization, that Mr. Clinton included to win votes for his tax package. They wanted to vote first for spending cuts.
Mr. Foley said yesterday that one of the reasons House leaders supported the drive for greater cuts by the budget committees was to win votes from conservatives for the stimulus package.
The legislators also felt politically compelled to trim Mr. Clinton's spending plans to comply with the limits of the 1990 budget agreement, which the president had ignored initially.
And they further pared his spending plan to fit a reworking of his calculations by the Congressional Budget Office. That step, too, was motivated more by political pressures than by any slavish devotion to technical niceties.
"The president made such a point of the CBO numbers in his speech, we could hardly afford to ignore them," said Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Mr. Clinton is a little wary that the lawmakers might get so carried away with budget-cutting that they hurt the economic recovery rather then advance it.
But he said yesterday that he fully supports the austerity sentiment.
"I think that in the end there will be . . . a much more substantial
reduction in the deficit than the [congressional calculations] showed," the president said, adding that the budget-cutting efforts are "consistent with the direction of my plan to reduce the deficit and increase investment. . . . I'm encouraged by it."
WHAT'S HAPPENED TO PRESIDENT CLINTON'S ECONOMIC PLAN SO FAR:
Feb. 17 -- President Clinton outlines his economic program for Congress. It includes three elements: tax increases and program spending reductions totaling $493 billion over four years; a $30 -- billion jobs creation proposal including $16 billion in spending and $12 billion in business tax incentives; and $160 billion to stimulate business investment over four years. Critics question if the program goes far enough in cutting the nearly $300 billion deficit. In four years, they say, it would still be roughly $200 billion.
Feb. 23 -- Under pressure from rank and file, House Democratic leaders agree to delay vote on president's $16 billion spending package until budget cuts are completed. Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans argue that the spending cuts don't go far enough and the stimulus package isn't necessary.
March 2 -- President Clinton meets with House and Senate Republicans to push for his economic program.
Non-partisan Congressional Budget Office releases estimates that Mr. Clinton's budget proposals would fall short of his deficit reduction goals by about $67 billion. Senate passes one part of the president's $16 billion stimulus package -- a $3.4 billion extension of unemployment benefits.
March 4 -- House passes unemployment benefits extension and the President signs it.
March 8 -- President agrees to $63 billion in additional cuts over five years after pressure from House and Senate Democrats. Democratic members of the Senate Budget panel seek $90 billion in cuts over five years.
March 9 -- The House Appropriations Committee approves President Clinton's $12 billion short-term fiscal stimulus package.
AND, WHAT'S IMMEDIATELY AHEAD:
Today (March 10) -- House Budget Committee votes on President Clinton's $1.4 trillion fiscal 1994 budget package. The Senate Budget Committee continues hearings on the budget.
Week of March 21st -- Congress begins full debate on budget resolution, the spending blueprint that specifies spending caps in broad categories. Vote expected before Congress adjourns April 2 for Easter Break.
April 5 -- White House releases details of President's fiscal 1994 budget.