WASHINGTON -- Climaxing an emotional drama that put the Democrats to the first test of their ability to reshape the nation's economic policy, the House of Representatives gave President Clinton a slim but firm victory last night on his deficit reduction package.
"We have broken the gridlock, and we are taking responsibility for the future," Mr. Clinton said at the White House following the vote. "Tonight the House said yes to jobs, yes to lowering the deficit, yes to lower interest rates, yes to a brighter future."
The 219-213 winning vote, which was not nailed down until two hours before the tally was taken, sends the $500 billion package of tax increases and spending cuts on to the Senate for what is likely to be an even more tumultuous consideration.
The victory was credited largely to House Democratic leaders, who waged an extraordinary effort to convince reluctant Democrats that there was greater risk in doing nothing than in supporting the Clinton plan.
"This is the time to stand and deliver," House Speaker Thomas S. Foley exhorted his colleagues. "This is the time to justify your election. . . . It will be remembered, what we do to night in this chamber. We will remember."
The Maryland delegation voted along party lines, with all four Democrats voting yes and all four Republicans voting no.
House Republicans, who all voted against the proposal, taunted the Democrats with threats that they would lose their next elections if they voted for a program that will squeeze virtually every segment of U.S. society in an effort to reverse the trend of mounting federal debt.
"He's leading you down the path to political ruin," Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, warned his Democratic colleagues on the House floor. "Please don't follow this misled 'Pied Piper' down the wrong road. Don't do it."
Thirty-eight Democrats, mostly from rural and conservative districts, took his advice. But at least as many who had been wavering in recent days decided to gamble that the program would be improved in the Senate before the final bill is passed.
"There is no credible alternative," argued Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, the Illinois Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. "We have a responsibility. . . . If we don't have the strength to vote for positive change, then we do not deserve to represent our great nation."
Mr. Clinton made more than 60 phone calls in the final moments before the vote, hoping his Democratic colleagues would rescue him from an ignominious defeat, from which some feared he never would have been able to recover.
The pressure for party unity was so great that more than 80 Democrats signed a petition circulated by several freshmen calling for a special meeting of their caucus next month to consider stripping of their posts subcommittee chairmen who voted against the measure.
"If you are a freshman being asked to belly up and vote for this thing, you don't appreciate it if people with leadership positions don't do the same," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat who heads the House Democratic Caucus.
Republicans gleefully exploited the missteps, gaffes and misjudgments that have plagued the Clinton White House during the past two weeks -- including his $200 haircut from a Beverly Hill stylist.
"This bill is a lot like President Clinton's haircut," said Rep. Jim Bunning, a Republican from Kentucky. "It's a lot more expensive than it looks."
A less ambitious Republican alternative, which included no tax increases and depended entirely on unspecified cuts in domestic spending to reduce the deficit, was labeled little more than empty rhetoric by the Democrats. Prior to voting on the administration proposal, the House rejected the GOP measure, 295-138.
The Clinton plan calls for a new tax on all forms of energy and higher taxes on the wealthy, corporations and some Social Security recipients. Spending cuts include a pay freeze for federal workers and deep reductions in Medicaid and Medicare.
It also provides for savings of $102 billion over five years in other federal spending through a continuation of spending caps first applied in a 1990 budget agreement.
Mr. Clinton appeared to have picked up some crucial support from legislators in oil-producing states with assurances that the administration had opened serious negotiations with Senate opponents of the new tax on energy.
The potential changes could go far beyond a rebate for exporters already promised by the administration, legislators said.
"We have high expectations that we will see significant improvements in the [energy] tax when it reaches the conference committee," said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, a leader of conservative Democrats in the House. He said he anticipates that any revenue lost from changes in the tax would be replaced through deeper spending cuts.
But a senior administration official insisted that there was nothing in the works beyond the exemption for exporters of chemicals and other energy-intensive products.
The voluminous and complex legislation is the centerpiece of Mr. Clinton's economic recovery program, which thanks to enormous public pressure is now focused almost completely on deficit reduction.
With the exception of a new tax break for families earning less than $30,000 a year and some investment incentives for businesses, Mr. Clinton's program has been stripped clean of new money for spending on social programs.
In an effort to secure a House victory, a compromise was reached early yesterday morning by conservatives and liberals who were struggling to come up with a way to impose curbs on the automatic spending programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, that contribute mightily to the federal budget deficit.
The negotiators agreed on an entitlement review plan that would require the president and the Congress to take action when spending for automatic benefit programs exceeds budget targets. The excess would have to be financed by some combination of tax increases or spending cuts, or the targets would have to be raised.
"This is an agreement that I have wanted for a long time," Mr. Clinton said on the "CBS This Morning" TV program, adding that the compromise would "force us every year to make the budget cuts that we say we're making in this five-year plan."
"It's a very sound compromise," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Maryland Democrat from Prince George's County.