WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton probably would just as soon have avoided this little embarrassment in the Senate over his $16.3 billion plan to stimulate the economy. But he can console himself by calling it a learning experience.
The notion that the new president had so much political momentum that every Clinton initiative would just breeze through Congress was never realistic. The days of iron party discipline passed with Lyndon B. Johnson and Sam Rayburn a generation ago. And the president's stimulus proposal -- or "jobs bill," as it is now called -- is not the kind of thing for which politicians will walk through a wall.
Now Clinton faces a series of tests of his ability to deal with the real world of a Congress in which so many members consider themselves independent contractors with their own personal and political agendas and even more members uneasy about the fractiousness of the electorate.
The first test, obviously, will be to find a compromise formula for the stimulus package that can win Republican support in the Senate without causing a backlash among House Democrats who swallowed the original proposal whole despite their own doubts about its popularity. The basic problem for Clinton here is that the stimulus plan doesn't have a constituency -- it's mostly big-city mayors, the unemployed and the underemployed -- with much political clout these days. On the contrary, the idea of deficit spending for jobs in cities is clearly one that cannot be expected to sell in the suburbs and small towns.
That limited appeal, in fact, is one of the reasons the president has had no success in bludgeoning the Republicans out of their solid opposition. He has been accusing them of perpetuating "gridlock" and of a "political power play," both of which are accurate enough. But political professionals suspect voters don't concern themselves too much with gridlock unless it is their legislation being held hostage to politics as usual. If this were a tax cut for the middle class rather than jobs for the inner cities, gridlock would be very bad politics indeed.
Beyond the immediate problem of the stimulus plan, Clinton needs to build some kind of continuing bipartisan relationship for the times ahead when he advances controversial plans that cannot enlist such solid Democratic backing. There are at least six and possibly as many as 10 Republicans in the Senate who can be persuaded to vote with the Democratic majority on some social and fiscal questions if they are party to the decision-making. That group may include Sens. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Bill Cohen of Maine, John Danforth of Missouri, Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, David Durenberger of Minnesota and Mark O. Hatfield and Bob Packwood of Oregon.
In the case of the stimulus bill, none of these Republicans was consulted because the White House, encouraged by its success on the economic recovery budget plan, didn't think it was necessary. Now it is obvious, as it should have been all along, that voting for the budget ceilings was one thing and voting for new spending that will increase the deficit is quite another.
Clinton surely will need some Republican votes in the Senate, TC although perhaps not in the House, to win approval for any reform of the health care system. At this point, no one knows precisely what will be included in that package when it appears late next month, but anyone who has followed the issue knows many of the proposals will be controversial enough to make passage difficult and time-consuming.
Even if the health-care issue were not looming so prominently on the political horizon, it would make good sense for Clinton to build some bridges to the Republicans as a hedge against problems with fellow Democrats over the next four years. Although Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama has been the only consistent Democratic defector on the Clinton economic and spending plans, there are others who will jump ship on other questions later.
The bottom line is that President Clinton is learning a hard lesson: that even a new president fresh off his election triumph doesn't win just by tossing his glove out there on the mound. He has to show he can throw a fastball and perhaps a few curves as well.