Grumbling in the ranks Some liberals less than thrilled with Clinton's leadership


WASHINGTON -- Middle-of-the-roaders who think Bill Clinton has steered the White House too far left take heart: Liberals in Congress aren't finding life under a Democratic president all they'd hoped for, either.

When abortion-rights advocates discovered during a House debate last week they had been outfoxed by Republican abortion foes and abandoned both by House leaders and the administration, their anger exploded with a disillusionment that crackled far beyond the fight of the moment.

"We were ill-prepared for that, and a lot of people were very, very upset," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat who predicted Mr. Clinton will now be forced to strike an unpopular deal on abortion restrictions to get his health care reform legislation through.

This year, liberals have been forced to accept setback after setback to help pass the president's deficit reduction plan, which Mr. Cardin warned won't be enacted if the Senate succeeds in stripping programs to help children, families and the poor that he called the "centerpiece of the progressive agenda."

'Disappointment, frustration'

"There is considerable disappointment and frustration" with the lack of progress made so far on what others like to call the "compassionate" agenda, said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a freshman Democrat from Prince George's County. "And there's a lot of grumbling."

Republicans have tried, with considerable success, to affix the "tax-and-spend" label to Mr. Clinton. After all, the president did propose what some are calling the largest tax increase in history. In addition, his proposal to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military was highly unpopular with social conservatives.

But despite all the rhetoric, there as yet has been no vast flow of tax money to new domestic programs, no wholesale reversal of 12 years of conservative Republican social policy, no sweeping takeover of the federal bureaucracy by left-leaning ideologues.

Instead, most of Mr. Clinton's plans for social "investment" have been shelved, policy shifts on issues such as abortion and gay rights have been halting and incremental, and pragmatists such as budget chief Leon Panetta and Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman seem to have won out over liberals such as Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich and Health Secretary Donna E. Shalala in guiding administration policy.

"We've made no progress at all on the social deficit in this country," lamented Rep. Eva Clayton of North Carolina, president of the 66-member class of Democratic House freshmen. "Our commitment to education, to families and to other things have to take a back seat to the deficit, but we can still find votes for the super collider and the space station."

Tight-fisted atmosphere

While the tight-fisted atmosphere is hard enough for liberals to take, it is at least understandable given the enormity of the budget deficit. Worse, some liberal members of Congress say, are the White House missteps and bungling, and what they consider to be weakness on the part of congressional leaders.

Over the past few months:

* The president's $16.3 billion economic stimulus bill, which carried public works money for inner cities intended to create jobs, was killed by a Senate Republican filibuster the White House didn't expect.

* Mr. Clinton withdrew his nomination of University of Pennsylvania law professor Lani Guinier to be the Justice Department's chief civil rights lawyer in the face of conservative protests, saying he'd been unfamiliar with her views.

* And Democrats in the House were cajoled by Mr. Clinton into voting for a controversial Btu energy tax with a promise that he would not agree to change the tax in the Senate, which dumped it quickly with his acquiescence.

Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland blamed defeat of the stimulus bill on the lack of direct White House involvement.

"The president was preparing for a summit with Boris Yeltsin the week that was on the Senate floor," she said. "I know the summit was important, but not more important than this."

The Guinier and Btu fiascoes suggested a lack of conviction and candor on Mr. Clinton's part, some legislators said.

"When the Senate dropped the Btu tax, Clinton said he always expected it to be changed," one House Democrat recalled. "But that's not what he told us."

As for House leaders, there was distress in the liberal ranks that subcommittee chairmen who voted against the tax bill were not stripped of their leadership positions.

Women caught in the abortion fight last week also felt abandoned when Democratic leaders failed to pull the health financing bill off the floor when they realized it was threatened with an amendment banning federal financing of abortions that Mr. Clinton opposes.

Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who has been helping Mr. Clinton find a compromise on his proposal to drop the ban against gays in the military, said there's been a lot more progress on liberal issues than the president gets credit for.

Examples he noted include:

* Enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act, requiring employers to give workers unpaid leave for family emergencies, which had been vetoed by President George Bush.

* A presidential order lifting the gag rule on abortion counseling at federally financed family planning centers.

* Enactment of legislation that does away with a Bush administration ban on fetal tissue research.

* House passage last week of a bill that ends a ban on abortion funding by the District of Columbia government.

* And additional funding for AIDS research.

Modest progress

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington also noted there was modest progress made last week when the House reaffirmed its support for a ban on federal funding of abortions for poor women. Formerly, the ban allowed exceptions only if the life of the mother was endangered. The new amendment put forward by Illinois Republican Henry Hyde also allows Medicaid abortions in cases of rape and incest.

Even so, these first five months under a Democratic president can probably best be described as opening with a lurch to the left, followed by a lot of sashaying to and fro as Mr. Clinton and the Democratic leaders in Congress try also to satisfy the centrists in their party who so far have been the most cranky in public.

"Government by tantrum," is what Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a liberal Democrat from Colorado, calls the way Mr. Clinton has been whipsawed by Oklahoma Sen. David G. Boren and other Democratic conservatives who scuttled the Btu tax and helped decimate the president's domestic spending agenda.

Liberals are now going to try out those squeaky-wheel tactics as a joint House-Senate conference committee works this summer to resolve differences between two versions of the $500 billion deficit reduction bill.

Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, a Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, says he's entering into those negotiations with the position that it's all-or-nothing on liberal agenda items such as empowerment zones -- a program of tax incentives for investment in inner cities -- and expansion of a tax credit program for the working poor that were diminished or deleted by the Senate.

But as a practical matter, he said, "I know there's going to have to be some give and take. We're all going to have to take one step back from what we want in order to move the country two steps forward."

Mr. Mfume acknowledged there is plenty of impatience with this view among his newer colleagues.

"That's because they're just not used to the glacial pace at which progress is made around here," he said. "I think we need to wait a little longer before we start judging how well we've done."

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