Swing vote moves toward support of deficit package Boren turnaround laid to compromise on energy tax


WASHINGTON -- Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma, who holds the crucial swing vote that could make or break President Clinton's $496 billion deficit reduction package, said yesterday that the odds had greatly improved that a compromise he could support could be worked out.

Mr. Boren's new position almost guarantees enactment of legislation to lower the budget deficit, said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, chairman of the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over much of the Clinton plan.

Until yesterday, Mr. Boren, one of 11 Democrats on the committee, had threatened to block the budget plan, which was approved by the House of Representatives in a cliffhanger last week and seemed to face an even rougher road in the Senate. Mr. Boren had threatened to join the nine Republicans who have vowed to vote against the package, saying it overtaxes and doesn't cut enough spending.

But in a television interview, Mr. Boren said that signals in the past few days that the White House and Mr. Moynihan would accept deeper spending cuts and modifications in Mr. Clinton's proposed energy tax "improved the chances by about 100 percent that we're going to be able to work out an agreement."

Mr. Moynihan, reached by telephone at his farm in upstate New York after the broadcast of the Boren interview, said: "It is clear that Senator Boren sees that we have to have a deficit-reduction bill. We are going to have a bill more of the kind he has hoped for."

The Clinton administration expressed delight with the turn of events.

On "Face the Nation," the same CBS News program on which Mr. Boren appeared, Leon E. Panetta, Mr. Clinton's budget director, said he was "very encouraged" by Mr. Boren's comments.

"We've been talking with Senator Boren, and it looks to me like this package is a go," Mr. Panetta said.

Last week, the House approved the president's budget plan without significant change, 219-213. The victory required every bit of political firepower in the president's arsenal.

The uncomfortably narrow margin seemed to be a harbinger of deep trouble in the Senate, where party discipline is more lax than it is in the House and where lawmakers from oil-producing states who oppose the president's proposed energy tax are more influential.

But Mr. Boren's statements yesterday were the second indication of the weekend that the prospects might be improving.

Saturday, Mr. Moynihan said he had been working with the Clinton administration on changes in the president's program to command maximum support in his committee and in the Senate as a whole.

The Clinton package is supposed to reduce the federal budget deficit over the next five years by $496 billion, divided evenly between tax increases and spending reductions.

Mr. Clinton's proposed energy tax would be based on the energy content of different fuels as measured in British thermal units (Btu) and would raise $72 billion over five years.

Oil-state lawmakers fear that it will hurt the energy industry and cause widespread job loss.

The week before last, Mr. Boren joined forces with two moderate Republican senators, John C. Danforth of Missouri and William S. Cohen of Maine, to offer an alternative plan that contained no energy tax and had much deeper spending cuts for Medicare and Social Security.

The alternative plan itself stands no chance of enactment. The word in the Capitol is that 20 senators at most would vote for it. But it did provide somewhat of a basis for negotiations.

Among the reasons Mr. Boren cited for his new optimism was Mr. Clinton's decision to bring Republican moderate David Gergen into the White House. Mr. Clinton on Saturday named Mr. Gergen a special adviser.

Mr. Boren also pointed to the administration's willingness to scale back the energy tax and agreement on additional spending cuts.

While Mr. Panetta suggested some flexibility on the "Btu tax" -- a tax on virtually all forms of energy based on the heat content of a fuel -- he insisted that "some kind of broad-based energy tax" still must be included in a compromise.

White House and Senate sources said Friday that Mr. Clinton is prepared to abandon most elements of the Btu tax and accept instead as much as an 8-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax increase as the price of winning Senate approval of his economic package.

Despite the favorable signs, the plan is not out of the woods yet for two important reasons.

First, as Mr. Boren said yesterday, "the devil is in the details," and the particulars of a compromise will be difficult to work out.

Second, Mr. Boren has been maddeningly fickle about where he stands, and he could change his mind overnight.

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