WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's proposed energy tax came under sudden attack yesterday by a key Senate Democrat -- a development that signaled serious trouble for the administration's already imperiled deficit reduction plan.
Seeking to sabotage the controversial energy tax before the House considers it next week, Oklahoma Sen. David L. Boren announced yesterday that he would provide a pivotal vote to kill it in a Senate committee.
Mr. Boren's tactic, which was intended to force the White House into negotiations to replace the energy tax with spending cuts, was roundly denounced by Mr. Clinton, administration officials and House and Senate Democratic leaders.
They all noted that Mr. Boren's proposed alternative, which would severely cut Medicaid and Medicare benefits while freezing cost-of-living increases on Social Security recipients and federal pensioners, had no chance of winning support beyond the handful of Republicans who joined with him in offering the plan yesterday.
"It's basically a $40 billion shift away from wealthy Americans right onto people just above the poverty line, the elderly and the working poor," Mr. Clinton said. "I don't support that. I think that's a mistake."
Neither the administration nor House leaders gave any sign that they would change their plan to proceed with a vote on Mr. Clinton's proposal next Thursday as scheduled -- although they continued to negotiate with Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, D-Texas, and other conservative Democrats in hopes of resolving their demands for spending curbs on mandatory spending programs.
There was no doubt, however, that Mr. Boren's unequivocal opposition to the energy tax represents another huge hurdle for supporters of the president's deficit reduction package of $340 billion in tax increases and spending cuts over five years.
Mr. Boren's alternative proposal for reducing the deficit is also sponsored by Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, a Louisiana Democrat who has long opposed the energy tax, and Republican Sens. John C. Danforth of Missouri and William S. Cohen of Maine.
It would reshuffle the president's overall deficit reduction program to create a 2-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. Mr. Clinton's total plan, which includes cuts in domestic spending not reflected in this bill, calls for a mix of about 1-to-1.
"I am not going to vote for a BTU tax [on energy] . . . in committee, on the floor or anywhere," said Mr. Boren, one of 11 Democrats on the 20-member Senate Finance Committee. "I've looked at it every way I can, and I don't think it can be fixed to be the right economic policy for the country."
His pronouncement sent chills through House members who are already nervous about supporting the energy tax.
"This just makes it impossible for me," said Rep. Charles Wilson, a Texas Democrat who is afraid he will vote for the bill only to have it killed later in the Senate. "How can they ask me to vote for something like this if it's going to be killed?"
Mr. Johnston predicted yesterday that the energy tax was "dead."
But Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine was equally adamant in his prediction that the proposed tax would survive.
Senate Republican leaders, who have been determined to kill Mr. Clinton's program but cannot filibuster a tax bill to death as they did his economic stimulus bill, were gleeful yesterday.
They declined to endorse the Boren alternative, but Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas called it a "welcome step in the right direction."
"I think both Democrats and Republicans think we ought to cut spending more, so maybe they're on to something," he said.
Mr. Boren's refusal to support the president's tax bill when it comes before the Senate Finance Committee next month probably means it can't win committee approval, because all nine Republican members are expected to vote against it.
But the committee might be able to send the bill to the floor without a recommendation. Or the measure might be considered by the Senate Budget Committee, which has a 12-9 ratio of Democrats to Republicans.
The proposed new energy tax, which would raise about $70 billion of $246 billion in additional taxes, would be imposed according to the heat content of energy as measured by British )) Thermal Units.