WASHINGTON -- President Clinton challenged Republican critics of his deficit reduction plan yesterday to put up or shut up as the administration intensified its drive to push his economic program through the Senate this week.
For the second day in a row, Mr. Clinton and his top lieutenants sought to demonstrate that there is no realistic alternative to the president's proposal, countering Republican claims that the $516 billion plan relies too much on higher taxes and phony savings.
"It's easy to criticize this plan, maybe just because I've put forward a plan," the president said in an address by satellite to a gathering in New York of big city mayors. "Most of my critics don't have a plan of their own."
"Some say they're willing to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for people just above the poverty line, or cut more in veterans' benefits than have been cut already, or cut tax credits for the working poor just to reduce the tax burden on the wealthy," the president added.
"Well, I draw the line there. I don't think that's fair."
As the Senate prepared to begin debate today on the package of $249 billion in tax increases and $267 billion in spending cuts, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and other Republicans claimed they could reduce the deficit even more than Mr. Clinton, but they refused to reveal any details.
"Now I ask my critics in Congress," Mr. Clinton countered, "Where are your tough choices? What are you going to do? If you want to reduce the tax burden on the wealthy, where will you make up the money? What will you do to reduce this deficit? Are you willing to make the same kinds of decisions that I have?"
His comments are part of a White House public relations blitz aimed not only at the Senate but also at the public, who may believe Mr. Dole's charge that the Clinton economic program represents "classic tax-and-spend government running rampant."
Shape the debate
A senior White House official said the president's challenge to nTC the Republicans would put pressure on them to offer a specific alternative.
"But even if they don't, I think we win either way by not letting them shape the debate," the official said.
Mr. Clinton's deficit package is expected to win approval by a narrow margin in the Senate late tomorrow or Friday. But the measure will undergo substantial change in a House-Senate conference committee process that is expected to last a month or more.
As many as 60 to 70 separate groups of senators and representatives will attempt to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the president's proposal. The compromise that emerges from this process must then pass both houses again before being sent to Mr. Clinton for his signature.
White House officials, senators unhappy with provisions of the Finance Committee bill and most lobbyists are refocusing their strategies to appeal to the dozens of legislative leaders who will guide the House-Senate conference.
"We're telling Democratic senators who favor the president's positions [on issues changed in the Finance Committee] the best place to lobby for it is in the conference committee," said a top aide to Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., the Senate Finance Committee chairman.
Several Democratic senators are contemplating amendments that would restore tax incentives for small businesses, which were cut from the bill by the Finance Committee, and other changes. But they are proceeding cautiously.
'You're in trouble'
"If you're a Democrat in the Congress, you're in trouble if anything you try to do to the bill makes it look like a failure for the president," observed D. J. Gribbin, a tax policy analyst for the National Federation of Independent Business, which is trying to ease the measure's tax bite on small businesses.
Leon E. Panetta, Mr. Clinton's budget chief, told reporters at the White House yesterday that one of the president's top priorities is to get the conference committee to restore spending proposals deleted from the measure by the Senate.
Mr. Clinton wants to rescue a $5 billion program of tax incentives for businesses to locate in impoverished areas -- dubbed "empowerment zones" -- revive proposals for child immunization and aid for troubled families, and retain tax credits for the working poor that the Senate wants to trim by more than one-third.
Republican critics, in an effort to turn public opinion against the plan, claim the Clinton proposal imposes too heavy a tax burden on small businesses and relies too much on cuts that are not scheduled to take effect until after Mr. Clinton leaves office.
"It's an outrageous fraud," said Sen. Judd Gregg, a Republican of New Hampshire. "It makes no sense to talk about revitalizing the economy, when you are going to penalize the people who create jobs."
Even though Senate rules prevent the GOP from killing this budget bill with delaying tactics, as it did with Mr. Clinton's $16.2 billion economic stimulus proposal, Republican rhetoric can make the task of winning Democratic votes more difficult.
"Chart wars" was how Sen. James R. Sasser, D-Tenn., the Senate Budget Committee chairman, described the bewildering statistics coming from both parties.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, the senior Republican on the Budget Committee, complained yesterday that $15 billion of the Clinton "cuts" are actually increased user fees and another $59 billion in "cuts" come from reduced interest payments on the debt.
But Mr. Panetta noted yesterday that similar accounting methods had been used when Republicans helped put together a deficit reduction program in 1990 for President Bush.
"Maybe this is a phony plan," conceded Democratic Sen. J. James Exon of Nebraska. But, he added, "it's just not as phony as those ones [backed by Republicans]. Let's see if it can work."