WASHINGTON -- Sen. David L. Boren, still flush from his lead role in killing President Clinton's energy tax proposal, threatened yesterday to kill the entire budget unless more spending curbs are included.
Although the Oklahoma Democrat's comments were greeted with disdain by most of his colleagues, they vividly illustrate why the president is so frustrated in trying to reach agreement with Congress when nearly every Democrat has veto power -- and seems intent on tormenting him with it.
Mr. Clinton, who accused Congress Monday of returning to its gridlocked ways, argued that any attempt to start all over now could mean major trouble for the economy.
"You delay it a couple of months, you are going to have less deficit reduction, higher interest rates, more fragility, uncertainty in the economy, more consumer confidence going down," the president told reporters at the White House yesterday.
During a floor speech in which Mr. Boren repeatedly quoted himself, the senator complained that the budget compromise taking shape in a House-Senate conference committee relies too heavily on tax increases, imposes no controls on automatic spending for Medicare and Medicaid and has no Republican support.
While blaming Republicans as well as Democrats for the political "gamesmanship" that has prevented even a trace of cooperation on the budget, Mr. Boren argued that it is not too late to produce a bipartisan product -- even if it adds another two weeks or a month to the process.
He suggested the budget conferees, now furiously trying to finish their work in time to enact the budget into law next week, should "pause" so President Clinton can convene a "summit" of Republican and Democratic leaders.
"Surely there are enough members of both parties willing to work together in the national interest to produce a better plan," he said.
If so, it was not immediately apparent.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici, of New Mexico, ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said he and his colleagues are willing to help pick up the pieces of Mr. Clinton's budget if it is defeated, but they do not want to get involved at this point in the negotiations.
At a luncheon of Democratic senators yesterday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut said the reaction to Mr. Boren's plan was all negative.
"There will be no summit. Period," Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, the majority leader, told reporters later.
Even legislators who agree with Mr. Boren's position in support of greater spending cuts and bipartisan cooperation say his "summit" proposal is unrealistic.
"I don't see any chance of that happening," said Rep. Charles W. Stenholm, D-Texas, who noted he has been rebuffed in all of his own approaches to the GOP.
One of 30 conservative Democratic House members who met with Mr. Clinton at the White House yesterday, Mr. Stenholm also issued a warning to the president: that he stands to lose previous votes for the budget in the House unless greater efforts are made to cut the growth in spending. Mr. Stenholm is promoting a 1 percent reduction in most government spending over the next five years.
"But I just don't think this is one of the deals where you threaten to take your ball and bat and go home," Mr. Stenholm said.
Seeks 'major changes'
Senator Boren did not quite go that far, but he did announce, "It will take some major, bold changes for me to vote [for the budget bill]."
This approach, first displayed during Senate consideration of Mr. Clinton's failed economic stimulus package and later during debate over his doomed tax on the heat content of fuel, has earned the Oklahoman the enmity of his Democratic colleagues in the House.
Rep. Mike Synar, a Democrat from Mr. Boren's home state, calls the senator a "peacock."
President Clinton, a former Arkansas governor not used to such independence from his state legislature, has just about had his fill of grandstanding and blackmail.
It's coming at him from all sides.
Liberal Democrats want more spending on tax credits for the working poor, and tax incentives for investment in blighted urban and rural areas. Western and farm state Democrats want to get rid of the gasoline tax increase, which the Senate approved after killing Mr. Clinton's heat content tax proposal. California lawmakers and others from states still in deep recession want more of an economic boost for small businesses.
And somehow these concerns have to be met under the constraints of a $500 billion deficit reduction package that's supposed to include more spending cuts than tax increases.
Mr. Clinton's frustration burst forth during a speech in Chicago Monday night, when he complained about "delay and gridlock."
"This government needs to pass this budget and get on with the rest of the business," Mr. Clinton said. "Hanging out there, debating it, dragging it out for weeks and weeks will only make it worse."
The president's frustration is "legitimate" and understandable, said Sen. Max Baucus, one of the budget conferees, who is busy stirring up a revolt against the gasoline tax.
"But it's like Winston Churchill said: this is a democracy, with all its fits and starts, the worst system in the world except that no one's come up with anything better."
In fact, substantial progress on the budget deal has already been made, and much of the debate under way now amounts to fine-tuning provisions that have already been tentatively agreed to. Pressure is strong to complete the job quickly so Congress can adjourn for its summer recess.
"We'll get our work done," Senator Baucus predicted. "There's is a 99.99 percent chance that we'll come up with something, vote and get out of here on time."