Pecking At The President's Plan

With the temperature in Chillicothe, Ohio, hovering at 3F, President Clinton's advisers were sure he would cancel his early-morning jog. But on the first day of a coast-to-coast campaign for his new economic plan, the President wasn't about to let weather or conventional wisdom get in the way. The determination Clinton showed on Feb. 19 is something he'll need in spades as he tries to thaw the big chill he's getting from some business interests, a solid phalanx of Republicans, and even a few stray Democrats.

Still, the President's chances of success are brighter than his enemies think. After a frenetic week that saw the President lobby executives in Silicon Valley, aerospace workers at Boeing Co., and Midwesterners in a St. Louis mall, public opinion polls show overwhelming support for his plan. Members of Congress, despite their collective nervousness about raising taxes, desperately want to reduce the deficit. And though unhappy with some specifics, many business leaders are pleased that Clinton seems to be taking the economy seriously. "It's certainly the first time anybody has come up with a credible plan," says Clinton backer John H. Bryan, chief executive officer of Sara Lee Corp.

Even ardent opponents believe a big package will pass. So lobbyists will settle for nibbling at the edges. "We can't kill it," says Bryan Little, chief lobbyist for the U. S. Business & Industrial Council. "Our goal is to divide up Bill Clinton's agenda into as many pieces as we can and delay it as long as we can."

'ONE PACKAGE, ONE VOTE.' Groups representing the energy, tourism, and inland-shipping industries are gearing up to tell lawmakers how an energy tax would hurt the economy. The Tax Reform Action Coalition, composed of 350 groups that succeeded in getting tax rates lowered in 1986, will fight higher corporate rates. The National Federation of Independent Business will seek better treatment for small companies.

Clinton has been pushing the idea that the sum of his budget is better than its individual parts. The toughest challenge the plan faces, says White House adviser Paul E. Begala, is "holding it together. We've got to make this one package, one vote--and move quickly."

The President has neutralized much corporate opposition by "making a very deliberate effort to reach out to groups, business in particular," says Alexis Herman, a senior White House official. All that schmoozing seems to be paying off. Some of the biggest names in business and labor, including executives from Ford, Arco, the United Auto Workers, and the AFL-CIO, were set to meet with Clinton on Feb. 25 at the White House to announce support for his plan.

The White House is also enlisting grass-roots backing. Gene Kimmelman, chief lobbyist for the Consumer Federation of America, hopes to assemble a coalition of good-government, environmental, and other liberal groups to help out. A "truth squad" would publicize how business lobbies would benefit from alterations. "It's painful for everyone, but the overall package is a net plus for the middle class," says Kimmelman.

Perhaps the most important piece of the strategy is Clinton's collaboration with Democratic leaders in Congress to keep the momentum rolling. In March, Congress will be asked to approve a budget resolution that imposes a ceiling on next year's spending--even though the White House's official budget request won't be available until Apr. 5.

The move is largely symbolic, because the actual cuts and tax changes won't be enacted until summer, when Congress begins the budget-reconciliation process. But it sends a signal that the Clintonites and Congress are serious about deficit reduction. "We want to lock in these spending cuts early," says White House lobbyist Howard Paster. And the move is good legislative management, since it should help keep the Senate and House versions of the budget from spinning down wildly divergent tracks.

To hold the plan together, Clinton needs the support of center-right Democrats, who are threatening to bolt unless more spending reductions are added to the mix. And the White House does seem amenable to the idea of deeper cuts. One possibility: A bipartisan alliance with GOP moderates to cut further, even at the risk of losing some Democratic liberals. "We'd like nothing more than to incorporate good ideas of how to cut the budget from either party," says Begala.

But at the same time, Clinton will put the spur to lawmakers by going straight to the public. Some voters are already responding. Barbara Braxton, 58, received a call asking her to attend the President's speech in St. Louis Feb. 18 and to telephone Capitol Hill to voice support for his proposal. "I called my Senators and told them to stop the gridlock and give the plan a chance to work," says Braxton, a homemaker.

The White House is counting on thousands of Barbara Braxtons to carry the day. "It would be a serious mistake to underestimate President Clinton's political abilities," says Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). As long as the President can keep the calls and letters flowing, Clinton's opponents have reason to worry.

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