Democrats look to Clinton to draw a line in the sand


WASHINGTON -- Leon E. Panetta's tough talk about appropriations bills isn't likely to cause much fear and trembling in Congress. The operative question is whether President Clinton will live up to the rhetoric of his White House chief of staff.

The president earned a reputation early in his stewardship for being too ready to change his mind or compromise when confronted. That was the case, for example, when he yielded to pressure and dropped an energy tax from his first budget plan two years ago. And he has reinforced the image time and again since the Republicans won control of Congress eight months ago.

The predictable result is a demoralized Democratic minority in Congress with no clear picture of where Clinton is willing to draw a line in the sand. The alacrity with which he offered his own deficit-reduction plan to counter the Republicans only nourished suspicions that he would rather bargain than fight.

In fact, there was less than met the eye in the veto threat delivered by Panetta. The chief of staff assailed House Republicans for what he called "huge, unacceptable cuts" in appropriations bills and said Clinton would veto some of them unless they are modified.

But there is no reason to believe that the president ever will be faced with that direct option. The 13 appropriations bills inevitably will be drastically revised by further committee action in the House and in the Senate and conference committees before reaching the White House.

Nor does anyone in Congress fear the possibility of the government being shut down when the next fiscal year begins Oct. 1 and there is no money available to pay the bills. That has happened on several occasions in the last few years, and each time the "crisis" has been resolved by approval of continuing resolutions providing temporary funding until agreements could be reached.

It is clear, nonetheless, that the dominant bloc of conservative Republicans in the House is taking a provocative and confrontational line at the subcommittee level, hacking away at financing for many programs Democrats prize. If the Republicans had their way, there would be no national service program, and funding would be eliminated or sharply reduced for programs as various as education and retraining, crime prevention, legal services for the poor, regulation of pesticides, protection of wetlands and housing.

And these reductions would be felt quickly -- unlike the massive cutbacks in spending on Medicare and Medicaid that would not have their full effect for several years.

At the same time, the Republicans also intend to pass a tax-reduction plan that provides significant cuts for affluent taxpayers as well as those in the middle class.

The message from these Republicans to the White House is direct and unmistakable: We're going to take this to the extreme and see where the president caves in.

What is conspicuously missing from all this, however, is anything that might be called a coherent Democratic position. Liberals in Congress are still angrily resisting the Medicare and Medicaid proposals while Clinton has offered similar but less draconian reductions of his own spread out over 10 years rather than the Republicans' seven.

The disarray is similar on the tax question. Clinton has a plan to give reductions to the middle class, and so does House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are making it plain that they don't want to go along with any tax reduction in light of the huge spending reductions that will be required over the next few years.

The politics of the situation are complex. On the one hand, Clinton recognizes there is a demand for reductions in big government spending programs that cannot be ignored if he hopes to win a second term next year. But the polls also show voters still want some of these programs and are uneasy about the extremes to which the Republicans are going.

And the Democrats in Congress -- particularly in the House -- tend to represent constituencies of minorities and the disadvantaged that benefit disproportionately from these social programs. What they are looking for from Clinton is some clear signal about his bottom line in defending those constituencies. Until they get it, their enthusiasm for their president is likely to be limited.

The answer so far is Leon Panetta's tough talk. But it is Bill Clinton, not Leon Panetta, who will be confronted with the hard decisions sometime in the next 90 days.

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