President Clinton, trying to contain a rebellion that threatens to divide the "New Democrat" coalition he helped create, went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to appeal directly for support of an economic agenda that restive Democratic lawmakers consider top-heavy with taxes and shy on spending cuts.
"If you go out on a limb, I'll go out with you," the President told House Democrats in a closed-door meeting called in response to increasing signs of disaffection with his economic priorities. Afterward, Democratic leaders predicted that Clinton's plan will prevail in the House.
But as Clinton apparently doused that fire, another broke out in the Senate, where Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.) has formed a powerful bipartisan coalition to try to dump the President's $71-billion energy tax and replace the lost revenue with spending cuts.
Boren is working with four other members of the Senate Finance Committee, including Republicans John C. Danforth of Missouri and John H. Chafee of Rhode Island as well as Democrats John B. Breaux of Louisiana and Kent Conrad of North Dakota.
The committee has a slim 11-9 Democratic majority, but the Boren-led coalition probably would get support from most, if not all, Republicans on the panel.
Boren is attempting to find spending cuts of at least $50 billion and then to cancel $21-billion worth of the earned income tax credit, which is designed to offset the impact of the energy tax on families with incomes of less than $30,000. Other spending cuts also may be included in the package, the sources said.
The White House reserved public judgment on the Boren proposal Wednesday, but aides said privately that Clinton would somehow have to accommodate the Oklahoma Democrat because he controls the swing votes on the committee.
Clinton's immediate objective in his trip to Capitol Hill was to deflect growing pressure by moderate and conservative Democrats to scale back his proposed tax increases and to impose ceilings on the future growth of big entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and food stamps.
But on a more fundamental level, the President is trying to hold together the coalition of party centrists and traditional liberals he needs to win approval of his legislative agenda and maintain his political credibility.
Clinton campaigned as a fiscally prudent "New Democrat" unshackled by what Republicans characterized as the tax-and-spend philosophy of the traditional Democratic Party. He has also tried to woo supporters of Ross Perot by emphasizing his commitment to deficit reduction and government reform.
But Perot has continued to snipe at Clinton while moderates within Clinton's own party have accused him of sacrificing deficit reduction to finance a variety of ambitious social programs. And he has yet to attract Republican support for any substantial part of his economic agenda.
The fault lines were evident in the Democratic caucus Wednesday, participants said.
Some House members told the President that they are tired of holding their noses and voting for his programs only to see them blocked or compromised in the Senate, and others complained about the high cost of the Administration's proposed tax increases for their struggling constituents.
Clinton's outreach effort did not immediately heal the divisions but appeared to avert an immediate showdown. House Democrats signaled their willingness to approve a key budget bill next week without attaching new spending limits. Leaders predicted that the $340-billion budget "reconciliation" bill would pass by a margin of 25 or 30 votes, meaning that a handful of Democrats will defect to a solid anti-bill Republican minority.
Clinton, in turn, promised to consider entitlement caps at some future date if his yet-to-be-presented health care plan fails to adequately contain rising costs. He reminded lawmakers that his budget includes $100 billion in cuts in mandatory social programs over the next five years.
Unlike his previous meetings with members of Congress, Clinton appeared on the Hill as a more life-size figure, one who has slid in the polls and who is asking Democrats for the large and politically risky favor of raising taxes and cutting spending on popular programs at the same time.
Predictably, liberals and the leadership came out of the meeting saying Clinton had strengthened his position and praising him effusively.
However, Clinton does not appear to have changed any minds among conservative Democrats. One of their leaders, Rep. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas, said the group plans to continue to press for entitlement caps "very strongly. That's what our troops are saying."
He conceded that he would vote for the package in the end, no matter what form it takes, but said he will fight as hard as he can to include the caps.
Another who was unswayed was Rep. Timothy J. Penny (D-Minn.). Noting that House leaders have promised that they would allow the issue of entitlement caps to come to a vote some time in the future, he complained, "We're always told to wait . . . . It's always later."
But he acknowledged that the President's appearance may have brought others in line.
Times staff writer Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.