WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Sen. David L. Boren said yesterday that he would reverse his position and vote against President Clinton's deficit-reduction package, forcing Mr. Clinton to convert at least one Senate opponent of the plan to win his budget battle this week.
The Oklahoma Democrat, whose support for the proposal has been doubtful ever since he helped it squeak through the Senate on a vote in June, said in a television interview that his "conscience" would not let him approve a five-year, $500 billion deficit-reduction plan that he says calls for too few spending cuts.
"I feel compelled to vote against this plan," even if it means defeat for the measure, Mr. Boren said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."
Administration officials and Democratic congressional leaders downplayed Mr. Boren's announcement, confidently predicting that they would be able to produce the necessary votes when the Senate takes up the budget bill later this week.
"We haven't counted on Senator Boren for quite some time," said Vice President Al Gore, who cast the tie-breaking ballot when the Senate approved the Clinton budget in June by a 51-50 vote.
But the White House doesn't have the votes locked up. And Mr. Boren's defection ensures that Mr. Clinton will have the difficult task of persuading a senator who voted against the bill last time to change his mind.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas observed that from the standpoint of many of the six senators in that category, the budget bill as it emerges today from a conference committee with the House of Representatives "hasn't gotten any better." Interviewed on the ABC program "This Week with David Brinkley," Mr. Dole added that the package, which negotiators say now provides something less than $496 billion in deficit reduction, has "probably gotten a little worse."
The compromise plan is more like the Senate version than the House version, most notably because it retains the Senate's 4.3-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax increase without making any concessions to demands from the House for higher energy-tax revenue that could offset social spending and business tax breaks.
But there are some larger tax increases, including a decision to move the effective date of higher income taxes on the rich back to Jan. 1 of this year from the July 1 date favored by the Senate.
And there are fewer spending cuts. For example, tax negotiators reduced a Senate cut of $58 billion in the Medicare program to $56 billion and ran into a storm of opposition from House liberals and advocates for the elderly, who thought they had a deal to limit the cut to $54 billion.
Most of the six Senate Democrats who voted against the bill last time, as well as some other Democrats who supported the bill last time but are now wavering, have complained that the deficit-reduction plan relies too heavily on tax increases and not enough on spending cuts.
Three of the six -- Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Richard Bryan of Nevada and Dennis DeConcini of Arizona -- face re-election contests next year in which they fear that their votes for the Clinton budget could contribute to their defeat.
The White House is still considering some changes in the legislation or concessions in other areas that might help wavering senators cast these difficult votes.
For example, there could be a rise in the minimum income level for Social Security recipients who would be subject to higher taxes on their benefits, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said in a television interview Saturday. The amount approved by the Senate sets the threshold at $32,000 a year for single taxpayers and $40,000 a year for married couples.
Lifting that ceiling would meet a demand by Mr. DeConcini and may help Mr. Bryan, whose constituencies include a large elderly population.
A tax deduction for business meals and entertainment, which Mr. Clinton wanted to cut to 50 percent from 80 percent, may now be set at 65 percent, partly to please Mr. Bryan and several House Democrats.
The anticipated lack of any Republican votes for the budget in the House or Senate has complicated Mr. Clinton's objective of passing a five-year spending plan that will cut the federal budget deficit through a combination of tax increases and limits on the growth of federal spending.
"Every Democratic senator has veto power," said Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas, a Clinton ally. "It's scary."
What's worse for the president and congressional leaders is that there is little they can do to strong-arm their troops into line. Especially in the Senate, independence is considered an absolute right. And none but those who are seeking high party office need fear punishment for an act of disloyalty.
Mr. Boren, for example, is something of a political pariah within his party, but he seems to suffer no more than socially for it. He was Mr. Clinton's floor manager on the campaign finance legislation approved by the Senate in June and will continue to be influential on issues of particular concern to him.
A clumsy attempt by the Clinton administration to punish Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama in February for publicly embarrassing Mr. Gore with critical comments at a press photo session has only stiffened the senator's determination to oppose the president on his budget.
Mr. Shelby, who lost a NASA installation in his state as a result of the Gore slight, is now considered the least likely of the six Democratic defectors to have a change of heart.
Mr. Lautenberg of New Jersey, who faces re-election in a passionately anti-tax state, says he just can't say he voted for higher taxes unless there is much public works spending in New Jersey in the deal.