WASHINGTON -- House leaders and conservative Democrats reached a compromise early this morning on spending curbs for automatic benefit programs that is expected to assure President Clinton a narrow but crucial victory for his economic recovery program.
The agreement, which requires the president and Congress to take action if so-called entitlement spending exceeds budget estimates, was described by Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, a Texas Democrat, as "a major, major, significant change" in the budget process."
The compromise clears the way for House approval today of a $500 billion package of tax increases and spending cuts that would represent the first concrete step toward the enactment of the most ambitious attempt ever to get the nation on the path toward solvency.
It would also provide Mr. Clinton with the momentum he must have to get the program all the way through Congress.
If Mr. Clinton prevails, it will be because a majority of the House Democrats, who bear the entire burden for passing the politically onerous package, has been persuaded that there is no other choice. All House Republicans are expected to vote against it.
"Nobody is in love with this thing," said Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, who met yesterday with the president at the White House. "It's an ugly child that we are all trying to find reasons to love. . . .But I don't think most people are prepared at this point to walk away with nothing."
Today's vote on the toughest part of the Clinton economic program will follow the House approval last night of the surviving remnant of what was supposed to have been the easy part -- a $931 million "jobs" bill that was contained in the president's original $16.3 billion stimulus package.
A Republican Senate filibuster, which killed Mr. Clinton's economic stimulus bill earlier this spring, dealt the president a political setback from which he is hoping to recover with a victory today.
A defeat today on his much broader budget package would be a far greater blow to Mr. Clinton and his entire presidency.
The prolonged negotiations last night over efforts to impose curbs on automatic spending programs inspired alternating predictions on whether the president would succeed today.
"We may have to charge the hill two or three times to get to the summit," said Rep. Jim Slattery, a Kansas Democrat. "But I think the president's most persuasive argument in the final analysis is going to be: It's either this or nothing."
Mr. Clinton's original deficit reduction proposal has survived largely intact because none of his critics has been able to come up with an alternative that would have any chance of enactment.
It has been accepted as an article of faith by the Democrats that no tax increase or spending cut in Mr. Clinton's proposal may be changed unless a substitute is offered that would produce the same amount of money. If that standard had not been applied, the entire program would likely have been ripped apart.
Within those limits, the White House as well as House and Senate Democratic leaders have been frantically cutting deals on the fringes of the legislation almost from the moment it was unveiled.
More deals are sure to come when the measure gets to the Senate next month.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington has already signaled senators from oil-producing states that the House would approve a Senate amendment that would grant rebates of the energy tax to U.S. manufacturers of products made for sale overseas, to help them stay competitive.
Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen made additional assurances about changes in the energy tax at a luncheon yesterday with former colleagues in the Texas delegation.
And still more horse trading will almost certainly take place when a joint conference committee meets this summer to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
But the message that Mr. Clinton, House Democratic leaders and administration officials seemed to be successfully pounding into much of the Democratic rank-and-file is that they all must come together now -- if only to move the process along.
"If we don't vote it in the House, it doesn't go to the Senate," Mr. Foley observed. "The process stops, and I think that is what the American people do not want to see."
Sen. David L. Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat and one of Mr. Clinton's most prominent tormentors these days, was actively promoting a third option.
Speaking yesterday to about 25 moderate and conservative House Democrats, Mr. Boren argued that House action should be postponed until both houses of Congress can agree on the president's proposed new energy tax.
Mr. Boren, who holds a crucial swing vote on the Senate Finance Committee, has offered a bipartisan plan to replace the so-called BTU-based energy tax with deeper spending cuts, including a freeze on cost-of-living benefits for Social Security recipients. But there wasn't any sign of movement in that direction yesterday.
House leaders have ruled it out as unconstitutional -- since the House is bound by law to be the first to act on tax legislation -- and politically impractical, because it would be extremely difficult to get a majority of House members to support a cut in Social Security benefits.
"In the final analysis, all of our differences are within the family," said Rep. Timothy J. Penny, a Minnesota Democrat who has been active in negotiating curbs on automatic benefit programs. "There is a [general] desire to produce a product that will move us forward."
Much of the final haggling last night was over the enforcement provisions of a new budget review mechanism that would force Congress to deal with the growth of automatic spending programs like Social Security and Medicare.