WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, asked before the crucial vote on his economic package early yesterday whether victory would constitute "a real turning point" in his presidency, laughed and said, "There have been a lot of those lately."
The president was gently needling himself for his own rocky start as well as the critics he thinks have written him off too soon. But the dramatic 3:07 a.m. vote by Vice President Al Gore to break a 49-49 tie in the Senate and keep Mr. Clinton's economic package alive was no joke for this White House.
"If we had lost that vote, this place would have been a funeral parlor today," one senior administration official said. "I mean, panic would have set in."
The slim-as-possible victory sent the bill -- designed to reduce the deficit by $501 billion over five years -- to a House-Senate conference committee, where the president faces some very tough bargaining with members of his party.
"There are several senators, including myself, who in no way are committed to vote for the final conference report," said Sen. David L. Boren, from the oil state of Oklahoma, who supported the measure only after forcing the administration to drop its broad-based energy tax.
Not only will he have to bridge budget differences between liberal and conservative Democrats in Congress, but in the days immediately ahead, Mr. Clinton faces such potentially divisive issues as gays in the military, a plan to strike a balance between loggers and conservationists in the Pacific Northwest and what exactly to include in his administration's health care plan.
He also has to contend with Republicans, who have attacked his economic plan as traditional "tax and spend" liberalism and who did their best yesterday to take the joy out of Mr. Clinton's morning after.
"The president tried to make this the defining moment of his presidency, and he's right -- it will be for years to come," Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas said shortly before the vote. "He's already earned a place on Mount Taxmore."
But Mr. Clinton's youthful aides, desperate for a victory, were bouncing around the White House grounds yesterday, all smiles, cracking wise and generally acting the way they did last year after a big primary win.
"Good thing Al Gore's a light sleeper," quipped political adviser Paul Begala. "Who knows what would have happened?"
Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary, assured reporters at her regular briefing yesterday that the president had a spare vote or two among the six Democratic defectors -- meaning that they would have supported the president if it was )) necessary.
In fact, White House lobbyists said throughout the final day they were always sure of having at least the minimum of votes to pass the bill. It was just a question of which senators -- pleading tough re-election contests or other political problems -- would be in the final group of dissenters.
As it turned out, three of the six defecting Democrats who joined the 43 Republicans in opposing the bill are facing re-election: Sens. Richard H. Bryan of Nevada, Dennis DeConcini of Arizona and Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey, who said the anti-tax climate in his state was "a big deterrent" to voting for the bill.
Of the others: Sen. J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana is still feeling insecure after a close race two years ago, Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia has had volatile relations with the Clinton administration on a number of issues, and Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the Democrat who most often votes with Republicans, has been permanently estranged from the president since the White House closed a 90-job federal installation three months ago as a public punishment.
The tally was so close that the vice president had to break a Senate tie for the first time in six years.
The budget measure, which includes tax increases on upper-income Americans, cuts in Medicare and higher taxes on energy, goes to a House-Senate conference committee, where the trickiest negotiations yet are set to begin in the middle of next month.
Ms. Myers said the president would not sit on the sidelines while his budget was being hashed over in conference.
"We won't be neutral," she said. "We'll be very involved."
Vice President Gore predicted that most Democrats in Congress would wind up preferring the conference committee's compromise to the House or Senate versions.