WASHINGTON -- If there were a guide of dos and don'ts for new members of Congress hoping to win re-election, it would feature a picture of Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky with an slash through it.
Yielding to intense presidential pressure, the Pennsylvania Democrat cast the deciding vote in favor of President Clinton's budget last August after promising her constituents she would not. Memories of the way the freshman was accompanied across the House floor by Democratic leaders who rubbed her back and whispered in her ear may forever tarnish the time-honored House tactic of hanging back until the end of a close vote to see which way the wind is blowing.
Nobody wants to be caught pulling a "Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky," several lawmakers said with a shudder last month when the House was taking up the hotly contested North American Free Trade Agreement. All those with an 11th-hour change of heart declared themselves before the balloting began.
Now comes the congresswoman's payoff: Mr. Clinton as the headline act at a summit on budget-cutting to be held Monday for the benefit of her mostly wealthy Republican Main Line Philadelphia district. But the so-called Entitlement Summit is unlikely to rescue Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky's shaky political future.
In fact, the conference has already been tainted by a fund-raising drive that smacked of what the leader of one senior citizen group called "payola."
Corporate donors who would be directly affected by the debate over reducing or eliminating automatic spending programs, such Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, were offered a chance to participate on panel discussions with the president and top budget officials.
"I think the no-so-subtle message" of the fund-raising appeals was "if you pay, you play," said Lawrence Smedley, executive director of the National Council of Senior Citizens.
"There was no quid pro quo," insisted Jake Tapper, a spokesman for Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky, who he said turned to outside sources rather than use taxpayer funds.
Even so, the White House was so embarrassed that the heads of three health-related corporations that contributed a total of $100,000 for the conference and a follow-up study were bounced from the program earlier this week.
Questions have also been raised about what is to be done with the rest of the nearly $200,000 raised by the Congressional Institute for the Future for the conference and a follow-up study.
Rob McCord, the executive director of the group, who served last year as treasurer for Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky's campaign, told the Philadelphia Inquirer he wants to use the money for two years' worth of polling, advertising and newsletters in the Philadelphia region related to the conference issues.
That prompted a complaint yesterday by the National Republican Congressional Committee to the Federal Election Commission that the money is being used illegally for political activities on Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky's behalf.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican, also told Mr. Clinton in a letter yesterday that the entire conference Monday could be considered a campaign event and urged him not to attend because of "legal ramifications as well as the general appearance of impropriety."
"I regret that this misperception is stepping on the larger story," Mr. McCord lamented. He said the issue blew up on him because the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, one of the donor groups that was excluded from the panels, complained about it.
If the daylong, high-profile conference ever had the potential to bail Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky out of her troubles, that appears doubtful now.
National Republicans, who already thought they had easy pickings in reclaiming Mrs. Margolies-Mezvinsky's district from the first Democrat to win it since World War I, are positively gleeful.
Radio ads, produced by the Republican National Committee to air throughout the Philadelphia area this weekend, proclaim that the conference is costing taxpayers $260 billion -- the amount that her vote on the budget raises taxes over the next five years.
"It's hard to believe she's doing all this to herself," said Dan
Leonard, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which already has six potential candidates preparing to challenge the incumbent.
As with so much in politics, the freshman representative's problem is not just what she's done, but how she's done it.
The former TV talk show host's performance has "raised questions about whether she is in over her head," said Charles Cook, political analyst for the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call.
Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky, 51, says she is prepared to take what comes. "I just think it was so fundamentally right" to push for new ways to control spending, "and that this conversation is so important," she said in an interview last week. "I don't know whether it will ease the political pressures or not."
Those pressures have been fierce, the congresswoman acknowledged. "But nobody expected me to win in the first place," she noted, recalling a victory last year of fewer than 1,000 votes. "I always knew my race for re-election would be very hard. Now it's going to be very, very hard."
Although Ms. Margolies-Mezvinsky extracted three promises from the president aimed at advancing the cause of spending cuts, she says that's not why she decided to vote for the budget deal one day after telling her hometown newspaper she would oppose it.
"You just don't know what it's like to have a president call you and tell you that his administration will be ground to a standstill if this bill doesn't pass," she said. "That's what would have happened. We wouldn't have NAFTA. We would still be trying to put together a budget."
And she said she was very deliberate about her tactic of waiting until the crucial moment to see if her vote was really necessary to achieve the 218 required for passage. "I told him, 'I will not be your 203rd vote, I will not be your 219th vote. I will be your 218th vote, that's all,' " she said of her talk with Mr. Clinton about a half-hour before the balloting began. "When they came up short at the end, his people came to me and said: 'Come on. We need you.'
"I was sent to Washington to make difficult decisions, and I did," she added. "I knew when I was standing there what the result would be."