WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is facing a referendum on his economic program in the House of Representatives next week that amounts to a vote of confidence -- and right now there's not much.
Even so, the grimmest of doomsayers expect Mr. Clinton to prevail when the House votes Thursday on his $340 billion deficit reduction bill because the measure is critical to his presidency.
With no realistic alternative in sight, rejection of the measure would amount to repudiation of the entire Clinton economic plan by an overwhelmingly Democratic body that is far more sympathetic to the president than the Senate.
"We will win because the alternative would be intolerable," a senior White House official said yesterday.
But as the day of reckoning draws near, Democrats worry that supporting Mr. Clinton may do them more political harm than good.
"I've said all along that this was going to be the most difficult vote members of Congress have had to cast for at least 10 years -- it has big tax increases and it has very deep spending cuts," said Representative Jim Slattery, a Kansas Democrat who is still undecided about what he will do.
Congressional Democrats have known since Mr. Clinton's economic address to the nation in February that they would be called upon to vote for major tax increases, including a whopping new levy on energy called the BTU tax. They have also known they would have to carry the burden entirely alone because none of the 176 House Republicans are expected to support the measure.
But the optimistic glow that cloaked much of the harshness of Mr. Clinton's proposals in the early weeks has faded as voters began to focus on the details of his program and decided they didn't like what they saw.
Lobbyists orchestrating grassroots campaigns have helped stir public sentiment against the proposal, members say, and the phone calls of protest are getting nastier. Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton's own approval ratings are dropping in public opinion polls.
"People think this is just a tax increase bill, that nothing is being done to cut spending, and they don't like that at all," said Ed Lorenzen, an aide to Representative Charles Stenholm, a Texas Democrat who is close to a deal with the White House on a plan to impose spending restrictions on mandatory programs like Medicaid and Social Security. In fact, the president's total economic plan calls for about $500 billion in deficit reduction over five years -- half financed by spending cuts and half by tax increases. But the lawmakers say Mr. Clinton has done a terrible job in getting that message out.
'Our mail is tepid'
"He needs to give another speech to the nation to sell our constituents," said Representative Dan Glickman, another Kansas Democrat. "We want to support the president, but our constituents have to come first. Right now, our mail is tepid at best."
Much of the president's political capital with Congress has been spent on controversies over gays in the military and the defeat of the stimulus package in the Senate last month. There isn't much remaining in the reservoir of goodwill.
Most debilitating of all for House members right now is the suspicion that Mr. Clinton's willingness to compromise when challenged will sell them out in the Senate.
The defection Thursday of Democratic Senator David G. Boren of Oklahoma on the energy tax, and similarly rebellious noises being made by John B. Breaux of Louisiana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, James Exxon of Nebraska and his Nebraska colleague John Kerrey, have greatly undermined faith in the president's promise that he will held his program intact.
"This is a plan that's going to require a lot of direct involvement by the president over the next few days," said Representative Timothy J. Penny, a Minnesota Democrat who is working with the administration on an amendment to soothe conservatives.
A House Democratic leadership aide said the time had come for Mr. Clinton to start working the vote "one on one."
The president is still at least 30 votes short of the 218 he needs in the House, according to Democratic whip counts. But White House and Democratic leaders agree that postponing the vote beyond Thursday won't help if Mr. Clinton can't pick up the support he needs by then.
Mr. Clinton's clout on the Hill suffered enormously last month when he lost his $16.3 billion economic stimulus bill to a Republican Senate filibuster.
The stimulus program itself, which would have increased the deficit this year to give the economy a quick boost of public works spending, was much less important than the prestige Mr. Clinton spent on fighting for it.
He ignored early attempts by Senators Boren and Breaux to win a compromise that would scale back some of the spending -- offending both senators in the process.
Now Democrats like Mr. Boren, who are under great pressure from the oil industry and other high power anti-tax lobbies, are climbing aboard the GOP bandwagon to distance themselves from their party's president.
"We're going to end up three years from now [and] the American people are going to see higher deficits than ever, [and] they're going to have had their tax raised," Mr. Boren said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show yesterday. "And, if Mr. Clinton thinks that's the way there's a chance for him to be re-elected, he's wrong. So, in a way, I think we're saving him from himself."