President Clinton finds himself caught in Capitol Hill crossfire that could undermine his entire economic program. The situation is complicated because, in our view, dissident Democrats in the House are right on target in attacking the deficit and dissident Democrats in the Senate are dead wrong in trying to kill the president's energy tax.
Mr. Clinton obviously hopes to emerge from this legislative mess triumphing over tormentors from within his own party on both issues and thereby short-circuiting Republican mischief-makers. But victory is by no means assured.
The president's appeal for party loyalty in the House caucus this week may have been enough to give him the votes to enact his economic bill in that chamber next Thursday. It could, however, be a dubious victory if it merely sets him up for defeat in the Senate. He would be far better off to re-establish his credentials as a deficit fighter by adroitly compromising with Democrats in the House, led by Charles Stenholm of Texas, who consider themselves in the mainstream "New Democrat" mold once applied to Mr. Clinton himself.
Mr. Stenholm wants to attack deficits by applying financial caps on runaway entitlements that were already included in the Clinton budget resolution that swept through Capitol Hill in March.
The president is opposing entitlement caps on the ground that curbs on Medicare and Medicaid should await his proposals for reform of the whole health care industry. Otherwise, he fears, the poor and the elderly might be harmed. This is debatable. Under the Stenholm proposal, if entitlement spending should rise beyond legal limits, Congress could spin off a bill allocating cuts only on those programs that do not affect the poor.
One way to cut through this morass would be to give the president rather than Congress the authority to initiate corrective moves. Another would be to require Congress to focus more precisely on entitlement reductions without enshrining mandatory cuts. Either case would include a good dose of cosmetics and face-saving. But the goal should be to show that the president is determined to get a handle on deficits so he can go on to win the Senate battle for a much-needed energy tax.
No matter how you cut it, the only way to hack at the mountainous debt threatening the nation's future is to raise revenue and reduce spending. In 1990, Congress passed a landmark bill for the first time applying limits to different categories of discretionary spending. But Congress shied away from taking on the powerful lobbies behind entitlement programs that account for half the government's $1.5 trillion budget. And without caps on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, veterans benefits, farms subsidies and the like, deficits have continued to soar out of control. The Stenholm proposal would at last close this gap by imposing caps on entitlement spending -- a key step in solving the deficit problem. The president should recognize where his true interests lie.