WASHINGTON -- Conservative Democrats want some proo that the deficit will really go down. Liberal Democrats want some guarantee that their programs will get first dibs on what money is left.
And all the Democrats want political cover for walking the plank with a president who is bragging about his efforts to promote one of the biggest tax increase bills in history.
As the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives prepares to cast the toughest and most important vote of the year for President Clinton next Thursday, nerves are ajangle and each critical faction is demanding its price.
"The problem is not so much substance as perception," said Representative Jim Chapman of Texas as he emerged from a two-hour meeting last night at which about 50 moderate and conservative Democrats complained about the tax bill to the chief White House lobbyist, Howard Paster.
"The concern is that the president is now being viewed as a typical tax-and-spend Democrat. . . . The question is how we can sell this to the American people." Mr. Clinton, who returned to Washington late last night from a trip out west where he was trying to drum up the sort of support Mr. Chapman talked about, was due to oversee the negotiations on Capitol Hill personally at an 8:15 meeting this morning with the House Democratic Caucus.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley said he is confident Democratic leaders will be able to marshal the necessary troops when Mr. Clinton's plan for $246 billion in tax increases and $250 billion in spending cuts comes up for a vote next Thursday.
But because most, if not all, of t(e 176 House Republicans are expected to oppose the measure, the Democrats can't afford much slippage in their ranks. They need 218 of their 256 members to get the measure through.
Given those numbers, any group of two dozen or so can command a great deal of leverage.
"I am concerned about passing the . . . bill," Mr. Foley said, when asked about his willingness to negotiate. "We need all groups and factions of the Democratic Party to work together toward that purpose."
The White House will probably be forced to compromise with conservative and moderate Democrats who want limits on automatic spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid built into the tax increase bill.
Leaders of that group, still smoldering because Mr. Clinton rolled over them in April to win House approval for a $16.3 billion economic stimulus bill that was ultimately killed by the Senate, are making the most of their position now.
"There is a lot of resentment because we don't feel we are being listened to," said Representative Timothy J. Penny, a Democrat from Minnesota.
The compromise would not be anywhere near so radical as the proposal advanced by Representative Charles Stenholm of Texas, who would cap the entitlement programs -- such as food stamps and Medicaid -- at the levels they are estimated to cost in the five-year budget blueprint. If the spending on any of the programs exceeded the yearly estimates, automatic cuts would
take effect unless Congress acted to approve additional funding.
But negotiations are already under way to come up with some kind of mechanism to address Mr. Stenholm's fears that attempts at deficit reduction will be meaningless if mandatory spending is allowed to continue to rise unchecked.
In fact, Mr. Clinton may have inadvertently encouraged the Stenholm effort by proposing to create a Deficit Reduction Trust Fund that most lawmakers regard as a public relations gesture ** with little practical effect.
Whatever deal the White House reaches with conservatives will probably have to be offset by some accommodation to House liberals, who are already unhappy that a Democratic president has finally arrived in such a tight-fisted atmosphere.
Discretionary domestic spending, which has been declining under the Republican administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, would be frozen for five years in the new budget plan at 1993 levels -- effectively a cut, because of inflation.
Liberals are certain to resist Mr. Stenholm's efforts to prevent defense money from being transferred to domestic social programs.
Representative Kweisi Mfume, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, declined to comment on the tax bill until after the caucus meets today. But he said through a spokesman that the proposed entitlement cap is "bad budget policy."
Because of the tight discipline and restrictive rules in the House, the real challenge to the tax bill was not expected to come until next month when the measure reaches the Senate, where the Democratic majority is weaker.
pTC But even in the House, the new president cannot afford to take Democratic unity for granted on a measure so politically dicey.