Senator David L. Boren (D-Okla.) has made a career out of giving his friends in the White House heartburn. Although Ronald Reagan considered the conservative Democrat a reliable ally, Boren blocked the Gipper's nomination of Edwin Meese III as Attorney General until he wrested GOP concessions on an issue of importance back home, emergency farm credit. The three-term senator also worked closely with fellow Skull-and-Bonesman George Bush on such issues as capital-gains tax cuts. But just before the 1992 election, Boren called for a probe into whether the Bush Justice Dept. broke the law in a case involving loans funneled to Iraq.
Now, the onetime government professor is giving Bill Clinton fits. While playing White House point man on campaign-finance reform, Boren, 52, is trying to reshape Clinton's deficit-reduction plan. On May 20, Boren led a bipartisan quartet of senators proposing to gut the Administration's energy tax and slash entitlement spending more deeply than Clinton had wanted. The revolt forced the White House to seek a compromise with Democratic moderates.
SEEING RED. Boren is playing a dangerous game. He says he wants to bring Clinton back from the Democrats' tax-and-spend abyss and transform him into the New Democrat he claims to be. But Boren risks causing the collapse of the Administration's economic plan. "Boren thinks he's helping the President by doing this," says Steven E. Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College. "But it makes Clinton look weak and not in control of things."
The Administration is apoplectic at what some insiders consider political treachery. Speaking to reporters May 20, the President, in language usually reserved for Republicans and the rich, criticized Boren's proposal for shifting $40 billion of the deficit-reduction pain "from wealthy Americans right onto the people just above the poverty line."
The White House must do more than just attack Boren, though. The Oklahoman is the swing vote on the Senate Finance Committee, which has an 11-9 Democratic majority and will begin considering the Clinton package in early June. If Republicans remain united, as expected, Boren could kill the package with a single negative vote. And he appears willing to do just that--if the White House doesn't cut a deal that moves Clinton toward the center and protects Oklahoma's energy interests. Boren's proposal may help kill the energy tax and spur a new round of spending cuts. "It's had a dramatic effect," says Senate Minority Whip Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.). "The BTU tax is going to be retooled seriously."
Senate colleagues aren't surprised that Boren, who wasn't available for comment by press time, is bucking his own President. "Boren is somebody who's willing to do things that are unpopular in his own party," says Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.). With little in the way of higher political aspirations, Boren is undeterred by criticism. "He has come to a conclusion...that these are serious principled issues he's fighting for," says Representative Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.).
Boren's independent streak may be a result of his political bloodlines. His father, Representative Lyle H. Boren (D-Okla.), was a frequent New Deal critic during the Roosevelt Administration. The son ousted a sitting Democratic governor in 1974 by campaigning as a young reformer. A broom became his symbol, and he cleaned up the Oklahoma statehouse by pushing conflict-of-interest rules and campaign-disclosure laws.
GO-BETWEEN. Swept into the Senate four years later, Boren avidly defended his state's energy and agriculture interests. Unlike most Democrats, he embraced Reaganomics and was a strong backer of the Nicaraguan contras. An intelligent negotiator--like Clinton, Boren is a Rhodes Scholar--he served as a bridge between the GOP White House and Senate Democrats. And he cultivated ties to business by emphasizing tax incentives, export promo-tion, and government streamlining.
It was only natural that Boren was entranced by Clinton's centrist approach to deficit reduction. But a month after pledging "unconditional" support, Boren complained about "constant backtracking" from the budget blueprint. Indeed, he proposed delaying some of Clinton's stimulus plan until Congress met deficit-reduction targets--although he later backed down.
With one recent survey showing only 22% of those polled favor Boren's plan, Administration officials predict Boren will retreat again. "I don't think he'd like to be seen as the central reason for a failed Democratic Presidency or to have his name attached to the next recession," says one Clintonite.
Boren may cave in eventually. But given Clinton's penchant for compromise, Boren probably will come away with something. For the moment, he has Clinton wriggling in discomfort. To David Boren, that's what friends are for.
DAVID LYLE BOREN BORN Apr. 21, 1941, Washington, D.C., during father Lyle's 10-year stint in the House HOME Seminole, Okla. ENTERED SENATE 1979 PREVIOUS OFFICES State representative, 1967-75; Oklahoma governor, 1975-79 EDUCATION Yale University, Oxford University (Rhodes scholar), University of Oklahoma FAMILY Wife, Molly; two children LEGISLATIVE RECORD -- Sponsored campaign-finance legislation to restrict political-action-committee contributions and create a system of taxpayer funding for candidates -- As chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, fought for confirmation of Robert Gates to head the Central Intelligence Agency over the objections of most Senate Democrats -- A pro-business conservative, often voted with Presidents Reagan and Bush, supporting the 1981 economic plan and the 1985 deficit-reduction proposal -- Strong advocate for two home-state industries--energy and farming--even delayed confirmation of Attorney General-designate Edwin Meese III in 1985 until the Reagan Administration and Senate leaders agreed to move forward on badly needed farm credit aid DATA: BUSINESS WEEK