As The Gop Bickers, Clinton's Budget Steamroller Gains Speed

Even the most ardent partisans on Capitol Hill admit that Bill Clinton can turn on the charm. On Mar. 2, during his first meeting with congressional Republicans, he surprised House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois with a replica of a 1914 Chicago Cubs baseball cap and a red, white, and blue 70th birthday cake. Clinton felt safe enough in this den of enemies to let Michel have the knife.

The President can afford to be magnanimous: After a couple weeks of deft maneuvering, the combination of Democratic unity and Republican disorder leaves him poised to push his plan through Congress largely unscathed. "The configuration of political forces looks pretty good for Clinton," says Carleton College political scientist Steven E. Schier. "He appears to be schmoozing his way into complete dominance."

Republicans have been in a bind from the beginning. They would like to just snipe at Clinton's plan but don't want to be blamed for gridlock. "To be credible with your criticism, you have to have something positive to point to," says one GOP House leadership aide. "You can't just be against everything."

Mostly, what the GOP is pointing to looks a bit hoary. Former Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp is pushing damn-the-deficit tax cuts. Senator Phil Gramm and House Republican Caucus Chairman Dick Armey, both of Texas, want a combination of deficit targets and automatic cuts. Others would dodge the tough calls with spending freezes.

Democrats dismiss these schemes as Voodoo II. "It's more of the same flim-flam that's gotten us into the mess we're in," says House Democratic Study Group Chairman Mike Synar (D-Okla.). Sniffs White House spokesman George Stephanopoulos: "It's not a serious proposal."

Other Republicans have tried to fill in the details. Representative Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) would save $191 billion over five years with 25 surgical strikes, including elimination of the superconducting Supercollider. "It's fair for [Clinton] to challenge us to come up with something we think is better," says Senator Hank Brown (R-Colo.), whose plan would trim the deficit by $200 billion more than Clinton's five-year plan. "The American people expect you to present alternatives."

Trouble is, the GOP can't come up with a single list, and the leadership is reluctant to back cuts in child nutrition, education, roads, or other popular programs. Ranking House Budget Committee member John R. Kasich (R-Ohio) is uncertain whether his budget plan, which relies entirely on spending cuts, will get official backing.

Maverick Democrats also are working up cuts lists. Most just want to nibble at the Clinton plan, mainly to beef up the spending cuts--and the leadership seems prepared to go along. "If we lead the way on these cuts, I have no doubt the President will support us," says Ohio freshman Eric Fingerhut.

The Republicans are learning the same lesson taught the Democrats in 1981. A new President who can sell the public on his plans can run rings around the opposition. Even as fervent a foe of tax hikes as Bill Archer of Texas, ranking Republican on the House Ways & Means Committee, has been reduced to asking Clinton if he might trim proposed tax increases by one dollar for each dollar of extra spending cuts.

That's just another sign that Clinton's plan is rolling on Capitol Hill and is likely to survive a crucial test vote before Easter. Unless Republicans get their act together soon, its momentum could become unstoppable.

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