WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Democrats in the Senate and the White House are indulging themselves these days in a totally predictable round of placing the blame for the deadlock over President Clinton's $16.3 billion stimulus program.
One theory has it that Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, the 75-year-old chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, blundered when he used arcane parliamentary devices -- of which he is the acknowledged master -- to deny Republicans any opportunity to amend the bill.
But if it is true that the Byrd strategy contributed to the new solidarity among the 43 Senate Republicans, it may be equally accurate to say that the Republicans were less outraged than they presented themselves to be. Most of them remember when they controlled the Senate from 1980 to 1986 and played a little hardball of their own. And they realize that their chances of mustering the votes to make any significant amendments were slim or none.
The other target of scapegoating is President Clinton himself and his White House staff. The argument here is that the president and his advisers could have anticipated the filibuster and should have known they would have to deal at the outset with Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, particularly after he sent some early signals that the Republicans wanted to be consulted. Instead, the White House chose to press their case solely on the basis of their majorities, which was fine in the House but not in the Senate.
Both of these theories, however, miss a basic point about the stimulus bill -- that is, that it is not popular even with many of the Democrats willing to swallow it whole. On the contrary, they consider it a "tough vote" to support higher spending when so many of their constituents have sent a message of antipathy.
There are, of course, some strong advocates of the Clinton plan, even some who believe it is entirely too modest. But these are the representatives of the big Rust Belt cities that would gain the most from plans to rebuild the infrastructure.
And they are the representatives of large constituencies of blacks, whose need for new jobs continues unabated despite the signs of some recovery in other segments of the economy. They are, in short, the representatives of the least politically influential segment of America.
Wherever the blame should lie, the result has been a standoff until after the congressional recess later this month. And the question now is how that deadlock can be broken.
In other circumstances, the conventional technique would be to try to crack the solid Republican front by making side deals with four or five GOP senators who have shown independence in the past or whose states would be prime beneficiaries of the jobs plan. The first group would include such Republicans as Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, John Chafee of Rhode Island and perhaps Bill Cohen of Maine. The second would include Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, John Danforth of Missouri and Alfonse D'Amato of New York.
Because one Democrat, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, has consistently defected to vote with the Republicans, the White House needs at least four Republican defectors to break the filibuster. But that is highly unlikely. This has now become a test of Republican unity and, in a sense, fealty to Bob Dole. The notion of a few members going off the reservation is far-fetched. And even if it were not, Clinton has not helped the possibility along by taking a hard public line blaming the Republicans for "gridlock" and zinging them on the fact the Senate has a swimming pool that was built by the taxpayers.
So, the White House will be obliged to find a solution that Republicans will accept, which in turn means some retreat on spending. One possibility is some form of the plan advanced earlier to delay some of the spending. Another, pressed by the Senate Republicans, is to find some further offsetting savings.
But the compromise has to be one that the Democrats in the House will agree upon as well. Some well-placed Democrats say, for example, that the Congressional Black Caucus clearly is not going to sit still for a proposal that provides only unemployment benefits, summer jobs and immunization programs without jobs building bridges and highways.
It's not going to be easy, and scapegoating won't make it easier.