Clinton trying to drum up support in Congress for his tax, budget plans


WASHINGTON -- With a critical House vote scheduled this week on President Clinton's tax and budget proposal, he and his congressional allies have launched a major effort to win support.

Democratic leaders estimate that they need 30 more votes to pass the bill. In the scramble for support, about 60 key House Democrats have been asked to attend a White House strategy meeting this morning.

The vote, now scheduled for Thursday, "could make or break this presidency," said a leadership aide who asked not to be identified.

Rep. Al Swift, D-Wash., a veteran member who is retiring after this term, said: "Essentially, what our leaders, including the president, are working against here is a group of members who are terrified.

"They are afraid of the grumpiness and frustration of the electorate and the political instability, the volatility. . . . Change inevitably means taking risks. And the prospect of that risk makes legislative bodies, like Congress, cowardly."

Indeed two TV network polls released yesterday show Mr. Clinton's job approval rating plunging.

The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll of 1,023 adults taken May 21-23 said the president's rating had fallen to 44 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval compared to 55 percent backing and 37 percent opposition one month ago.

Similarly, an ABC News poll done May 20-23 showed that among 1,005 adults surveyed 46 percent approved of Mr. Clinton and 48 percent disapproved, with the rest having no opinion.

The Gallup poll showed an almost identical plunge in the public's opinion of his plans for reviving the U.S. economy: 44 percent approve of it and 45 percent disapprove, compared with 55 percent in favor and 39 percent against in late April.

The president spent much of yesterday making personal phone calls to Republican as well as Democratic House members in hopes of winning their support for his tax bill.

One call went to Maine Republican Rep. Olympia Snowe, a moderate who has supported some tax legislation in the past.

But in this case, Ms. Snowe spent the 10-minute conversation telling Mr. Clinton the same things he is hearing from moderate and conservative Democrats: that his proposed new energy tax should be replaced with deeper spending cuts.

Democratic Party leaders in the House say they are working on a proposal to add more spending cuts to gain support from balking conservatives like Ms. Snow.

But many House Democrats have sent word to their leaders that they do not want to risk the political backlash of voting for the new energy tax if the Senate might reject it.

Their fears have grown in recent days since Sens. David L. Boren, D-Okla., and J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., proposed dumping the energy tax and slashing more deeply into Medicare, Medicaid and some other entitlement programs.

"Why should they walk the plank and feed themselves to the [Republican] sharks if this [tax] never comes?" said Rep. Dave McCurdy of Oklahoma, leader of a group of Democratic conservatives and moderates in the House.

Leon E. Panetta, the White House budget director, said yesterday that the president would stand firm in defense of the proposed energy tax.

Mr. Panetta charged that energy tax opponents were trying to protect oil companies back in their home states at the expense of poor and middle-class Americans.

Even so, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., acknowledged that he still lacked the votes needed to pass the president's plan. He said he would pull it from the floor if leaders had not collected enough votes to ensure passage Thursday.

Democrats hold a 256-176 majority in the House (there are two vacancies and one independent).

Republicans are doing their utmost to torpedo the president's plan.

"We want votes on two things, in particular," said William Pitts, a top aide of House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel, R-Ill. "One, we want a vote to strike the energy tax [from the package] altogether, and, two, we want to do away with the increase in the tax on Social Security benefits."

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