WASHINGTON -- President Clinton helped lock up Hous votes to increase taxes yesterday when he personally assured fearful Democrats that their painful effort to cut the deficit won't be undone by the Senate or runaway spending on mandatory programs.
Thrusting himself into the intense lobbying campaign now under way before the House considers his $246 billion tax bill next week, Mr. Clinton promised members at a closed-door session of the Democratic caucus that he would not strike a deal with the Senate to drop the controversial new energy tax.
"I said to the president: 'As usual, it is not good politics for me to vote for it, but as usual, I'll probably be [dragged] kicking and screaming in the last few minutes . . . and they'll probably get me to vote for it,' " said Rep. Charles Wilson, a Texas Democrat.
"I told him how awful that would be if they then compromised with the Senate. He gave me as strong an assurance as I could have possibly have expected that he would not be part of a sellout on the energy tax," Mr. Wilson said. "That he'd just go down with the ship."
The president also told House Democrats during their meeting at the Capitol that he is open to some kind of curb on entitlement spending for mandatory programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
"I want to control health care costs as bad or worse than anybody in the United States," Mr. Clinton said later. But he argued that the curbs could be more appropriately handled in the context of the health care reform legislation to be considered later this year.
But neither the president nor the Democratic leaders have ruled out a compromise gesture before then that would help give conservatives and moderates some political comfort on the tax vote.
'A positive effect'
"I think that the program is picking up steam," Mr. Clinton told reporters after meeting with the House and Senate Democratic leadership at a second private session.
That was generally the view of even those Democrats who are threatening to oppose Mr. Clinton's plan.
"Just coming down here to the Hill has a positive effect," said Rep. Timothy J. Penny, a Minnesota Democrat, who said he hasn't given up on an effort to win further cuts in entitlement spending.
While the hourlong caucus session was mostly devoted to policy, the president didn't refrain from old-fashioned partisan pressure.
"He said this is an opportunity and he expects loyalty," said Rep. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat. "I think it's still going to be a fight to get the votes, but the president certainly moved his cause forward."
Raising taxes is never easy, but Mr. Clinton faces a particularly stiff challenge because the Republicans are united against him and determined to make trouble for any Democrat who votes for his plan.
They were encouraged yesterday by Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who ridiculed Mr. Clinton's $340 billion package of tax increases and spending cuts at a meeting of House Republican freshmen just downstairs from where the president was caucusing with the Democrats.
"It's tax and spend, and that's not what the American people want," said Mr. Perot.
Without the Republicans, Mr. Clinton has to assemble the 218 votes he needs for the tax bill entirely from among the 256 House Democrats, and many of them are scared to vote for it.
Those who represent marginal districts where Republicans are competitive fear that the Senate will take apart the House-passed tax bill much as it destroyed the president's $16.3 billion stimulus package.
The Senate cannot filibuster a tax bill as it had filibustered the stimulus package. But the Democratic majority is so small that one or two senators might be able to force Mr. Clinton into some kind of a deal.
Energy tax substitute
Two Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, David L. Boren of Oklahoma and John B. Breaux of Louisiana, have been talking about trying to come up with a substitute for the energy tax. Mr. Boren has even been working with Republicans on a proposal that would replace the tax with entitlement cuts.
Many House members are also worried because they voted for a tax increase in 1990 that was supposed to have cut the deficit, but the deficit went up dramatically instead.
"It's very frustrating for legislators to make a tough decision and see that they get no results," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who heads the House Democratic Caucus.
"You tell voters you voted to raise taxes in order to cut the deficit and help create jobs," he said. "Then, you get no deficit reduction, no jobs and all you've done is voted for a tax increase. This makes the members feel very exposed."