I Knew Ronald Reagan, And You're No Ronald Reagan Yet

By the time Congress returns from its Easter vacation, Bill Clinton will almost certainly have cut a deal to get his stalled economic-stimulus package back on track in the Senate. While deriding Republican critics of the "jobs" bill as "senators who all have jobs," the President said on Apr. 6 that he was recasting the plan to "address some of the legitimate expressed objections."

Such willingness to meet the opposition half-way, combined with skillful maneuvering, has brought Clinton early victories, such as congressional approval of the outline of his budget plan even before lawmakers had seen the details. But while Clinton has brought a charm to the job not seen since the early days of Ronald Reagan, many wonder whether the President has a Reaganesque core of beliefs that he's willing to stand and fight for. And that raises big questions about just how tough he'll be in the tax and budget fights to come.

What had looked like the Clinton Express was sidetracked by determined GOP opposition in the Senate. On Apr. 5, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) failed in his third attempt to end a Republican filibuster against Clinton's economic stimulus package. Ridiculing much of the spending as pork-as-usual, a solid GOP denied Clinton the 60 votes needed to end debate.

To salvage the measure, the White House may have to abandon nearly half of the proposed $19.3 billion in spending. About $4 billion to extend unemployment benefits is safe, as is $3 billion in highway funds, $500 million for summer youth jobs, and $300 million for immunization. But $2.5 billion for community development block grants--largely unrestricted money coveted by mayors and a major Clinton sop to the Democratic left--will take a big hit.

Concessions to the GOP will come on top of earlier cave-ins to key Democrats. At Mitchell's insistence, for example, the White House agreed to exempt home heating oil from a higher energy tax to be levied on refined petroleum products. Coal-state senators, lead by Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), won a redesign of the tax so that it would be collected from electric utilities rather than mines. And Western Democrats forced retreat on a plan to jack up fees for grazing, mining, and logging on federal land.

If the Hill comes to see Clinton as the host of a new version of Let's Make a Deal, he'll be in big trouble in the tax and spending fights ahead. Already, Republicans suspect that Clinton's flexibility on the budget means the Administration will give in to Democratic interest groups. The Clintonites "needed a stronger result than this on the spending package to steel themselves for the already unpopular tax votes," says former Representative Vin Weber (R-Minn.).

DRAWING A LINE. Indeed, Democrats loom as the main threat to key Clinton tax proposals. Many Democrats dislike the proposed two-year, 7% investment tax credit. Both House Ways & Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) are unenthusiastic about the ITC and the proposed two-percentage-point increase in the corporate tax rate. Unlike the grab bag of spending in the stimulus bill, the ITC and other measures to spur investment are central to Clinton's vision of a more productive economy.

But no one yet knows whether Clinton will draw a line in the sand to defend the ITC--or any other part of his program. In fairness, Clinton is determined to avoid the inflexibility that got Jimmy Carter into so much trouble. Yet in his study of the Reagan script, he may have missed the fight scenes that made the Gipper so formidable in his first term.