WASHINGTON -- President Clinton appeared to be gaining ground yesterday in an all-out drive to secure enough House votes for his tax bill and avoid a defeat that could cripple his young presidency.
The compromise could, if approved, put new restraints on government spending for such so-called entitlement programs as Social Security and Medicare.
It would also force Congress to vote on whether to cut spending or raise taxes in years when entitlement spending exceeds budget estimates.
At stake is the fate of the $340 billion deficit reduction package that represents the guts of Mr. Clinton's five-year economic program.
The $246 billion in higher taxes and $94 billion in spending cuts are designed to reduce the annual budget deficit to under $200 billion by 1997.
Near the end of a long day of personal presidential lobbying and White House horse trading, Mr. Clinton was said to be still short of the majority required for House passage.
But amidst the churning of compromise and arm-twisting in the final hours before tomorrow's vote, House leaders and a cross section of the rank and file said they believed the momentum was going the president's way.
"It's going to be very, very close," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Baltimore Democrat, noting that Mr. Clinton will have to draw the 217 or so votes he needs entirely from Democrats. "I don't think he can [afford to] lose."
Mr. Clinton publicly embraced yesterday morning a compromise with House moderates and conservatives on additional spending curbs for automatic benefit programs that also has the blessing, in concept, of all factions of the Democratic caucus.
Meeting at the White House early yesterday morning with about 80 House Democrats, Mr. Clinton made a point of saying that he would support a new budget enforcement mechanism to keep so-called entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, in check.
Though details of the agreement remain to be worked out, Rep. Timothy J. Penny, a Minnesota Democrat, who has been leading the drive for spending curbs called Mr. Clinton's position "a dramatic improvement from where we were last week at this time.'
The compromise being shopped around by House leaders Monday and yesterday calls for a review of benefit programs at the end of each fiscal year.
If spending is higher than anticipated, Congress would be required to vote on whether to pay for the excessive spending with spending cuts or tax increases or with borrowing.
Rep. Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat who serves as one of the chief head-counters in the House, said black and Hispanic members had agreed to the curbs because they do not require automatic cuts without a vote.
Most Maryland congressmen are expected to vote along party lines. Only one, Rep. Constance A. Morella, a moderate Republican whose suburban Washington district is largely in Montgomery County, has not made up her mind, said Mary Anne Leary, her press secretary.
The other Republicans in the delegation -- Wayne Gilchrest, whose district is mainly on the Eastern Shore; Helen Delich Bentley, who represents suburban Baltimore areas; and Roscoe G. Bartlett, who represents part of Howard County and Western Maryland -- plan to vote against the tax package.
The four Democrats -- Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimorean who is chairman of the Black Caucus, Rep. Albert Wynn, a liberal freshman Democrat who also represents Washington suburbs; Mr. Cardin who helped craft the package in the Ways and Means Committee, and Steny Hoyer, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus who represents Southern Maryland -- plan to support the bill.
Mr. Mfume, who was personally lobbied by Mr. Clinton last weekend, says he -- and the 38-member Black Caucus -- will support the tax package if the proposal for a budget review process also includes monitoring of federal subsidies to agriculture and other industries.
Mr. Wynn, like many freshmen, is concerned about supporting the energy tax if it is not going to be approved by the Senate, said Sandy Moore, his press secretary.
How to explain tax increase
The 50-or-so undecided Democrats include many other freshmen, such as Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who barely won her Pennsylvania seat last fall and now is worried about how she will explain a vote for a tax increase to her constituents.
The congresswoman was among one of three groups of lawmakers who met personally with Mr. Clinton yesterday and then attended a private session of Democratic freshmen with White House budget director Leon E. Panetta.
Democratic congressmen also urged the President Clinton yesterday to go on national television to plead his case.
George Stephanopoulos, the Clinton communications director, said the president would address the nation about his economic package at some point but had not decided whether to do so before tomorrow.